Perfect Death


In Iain M Banks’ Look To Windward a man called Ilom Dolince dies the perfect death. Aged 450, he decides he has had enough of living, so he arranges for a copy of his mind to be deposited in an archive of human personalities ‘in case anyone wants to ask me anything’ and composes the last moments of his life. This includes travelling gently along on a ceremonial barge, entirely alert and without pain or suffering, surrounded by loving family and friends who are all drinking and talking and generally having fun. The last sight he wishes to see is the great city of Ossuliera which appears before him, round a bend in the river, shimmering, beautiful, full of bridges and arcades and fountains and rainbows. His life now complete, the Hub, the beneficent and god-like AI which looks after all the humans in the Culture, closes his eyes and displaces his dead body into the heart of the local sun. The party continues.

For many people this utopian vision of the perfect death is what they aspire to and Banks manages to capture the elements of the death narrative which many people in our society claim as a right. Those elements include long life, perfect health until the moment of death, choice and decision about the right time to die, the presence of family and friends, beauty and peace attendant upon the deathbed and an easy, mess-less despatch into eternity

Unfortunately, the facts of death are not like this, but this narrative of utopian death has a powerful hold upon us. In the Culture no one has to die at all if they don’t want to, although there are those who choose to risk death for the thrill of its possibility and those who choose death as a fashion choice.

A little while ago it was reported that a businessman, Jeffrey Spector, who had an inoperable tumour, went to the Dignitas clinic to end his life. His family said in a statement that he ended his life with ‘dignity and control’ and a friend said ‘it was no-one’s decision but his own’. This generated further discussion about pressures to change British Law to allow assisted suicide so that people would not have to travel to Switzerland.

So is this a matter of liberation or entrapment?

One of the recurring issues in this debate is a discourse around ‘dignity’, a word which occurs again and again in arguments about how we die. But what exactly is ‘dignity’? It’s become a very tricky concept which conjures up the world of Ilom Dolince in which the processes of death and dying are replaced by control and autonomy. ‘Dignity’ means not becoming dependent on others; not becoming incontinent or too weak to walk; not having to endure the fast or slow fading of bodily function or memory. In other words ‘dignity’ can become a metaphor for cheating death by choosing death: a constant theme of Look to Windward. Is such a possibility a mark of utopia, Banks asks.

Yet in our own society we fear this loss of ‘dignity’ in dying because we are not exposed to dying and how human beings die. Few people have any real idea of what happens to dying bodies and what those changes mean, so they have little basis on which to make decisions at all. Discourse around the value of the end of life is difficult because most people cannot imagine it and have not experienced it in the lives of loved ones. There are fewer lived experiences of good death to be reported, shared, valued and passed on. This is not helped by the habitual discourse of ‘fight’ and battle’ (‘he battled with cancer’) which is eventually lost. Jeffrey Spector’s illness was described as a ‘fight’ which he decided to end on his own terms. Faced with the prospect of a losing fight, a (heavenly?) vision of Swiss mountains and a clinical, mess-free despatch of the deceitful body may seem like a liberating decision.

But we can argue that this discourse around ‘dignity’ is a form of entrapment, because it divorces human beings from the reality of the end of life, which in the end may not be controlled by our decisions, no matter what we wish. Jeffrey Spector should not have faced the prospect of dying with the fear his family said he felt. Dying can and should have value, meaning and purpose, not only for the dying person but also for those who love and care for them. We should understand that ‘dignity’ carries its own myth and that the processes of bodily dying are real consequences of God’s created order that have their own place in the interdependence of human relations and caring for one another. The dying and death of a loved person at the heart of the family can cement relationships, allow emotional healing and give the bereaved gifts to help with their grief. This is absolutely not an argument for making people endure suffering and intractable pain, but an argument for good, sustainable care and best quality of life until its end. Liberation in this context means addressing fear, knowing what is going to happen, and being supported through it. Faith supplies hope for the dying person’s future beyond death. Yet few people seem today to be able to hold this possibility in their imagination; instead they are trapped by imagining a losing battle, characterised by loss, pain, incapacity, hopelessness. Kate Gross, author of the blog The Nuisance, noted that often in cancer blogs the things she most wanted to know about her forthcoming death were the things not written about, the things left unsaid.

The Christian narrative can challenge the myths around ‘dignity’ and help people think more about what a good death might be. We have a liberating mission obligation to say the things that are unsaid and tie them unequivocally to the hope that lies within us.


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