Sunday, 12 October 2014

Dying with dignity, funerals with dignity, depend on uniqueness

Your cursor over the title will take you to a BBC "Points of View" transcript of today's broadcast. Don't be misled by the title, it's not part of the assisted dying debate, it's simply about how difficult it is to feel that someone is dying with dignity.

To summarise clumsily: it's difficult for hospital staff, however compassionate and caring they may be, to provide in the environment of a modern hospital, that sense of a unique event happening to one individual. I'll leave you to read the whole thing.

Hospital staff do their best, some do extraordinarily well. But the bed in which she is dying is a bed amongst many; her death is one in a progression of deaths; and perhaps, somewhere in the hospital, someone is looking at spare beds, incoming patients, and thinking, with however much compassion that can be brought to bear, "the lady in no. 20 probably won't last the night, so..."

If you die at home, no-one is going to be waiting for your bed to be ill or die in. (Unless your family is exceptionally unlucky!) There may be one of those wonderful Macmillan people there to help, or someone from Hospice at Home. Hopefully, there will be close relatives there too (as there may well be in a hospital, of course.) But it's a unique event; it's your bed, and you're dying in it.

So if a dignified death depends on a sense of uniqueness, that is surely just as true at a funeral. That's why families hate it when there is another family visibly and sometimes audibly waiting for their turn; when an FD behaves as though this is just another job; when a celebrant minister or priest is doing so many funerals that he hasn't really made himself part of this family's feelings, hasn't done more or other than what he usually does. 

The deathly production line. We must do better.

Of course, if you die in one of the hellish killing fields in the Middle East, or Africa, or... then all this is pretty marginal. We are a fortunate culture still. But I can't imagine there's any bereaved family anywhere that doesn't want, somehow, to feel that the uniqueness of the person they loved has been part of the death, the funeral and the grieving.



  1. I don't know that I go along with the stuff about deference. Perhaps it's as simple as: when someone needs you, stop being busy. Treat them as them, not one-of-them. Above all, stop being busy.

    As to defining the word 'dignity' -- well, I find it about as useful a word as 'closure'. Pixelated.

    As for dying in hospital, yup, way to go.