Death by Design

Planning our last journey shouldn’t be bleak

Perhaps it’s been sparked by David Bowie and other losses from cancer in the UK entertainment industry (Terry Wogan, Alan Rickman etc) but there’s been a media flurry on the ‘last taboo’ in the last few months.

Alice Thomson writing in the Times described the ‘art’ of a good death. Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 has devoted a whole ‘how to’ programme on approaches to it. Quartz this week discusses how start-ups in France find opportunities in the funeral industry, The Guardian has interviewed the women running a London ‘Death Café’, BBC Two have aired How To Die: Simon’s Choice and BBC One, Before I Kick the Bucket, whilst booksellers promote surgeon Atul Guwande’s exploration of ‘Being Mortal’.

Good grief! It leaves you yearning for the escapism of a high body count action movie.

Sad, death will always be, but we can improve things with an honest chat. Before we go — what do we want?

When we can no longer communicate the thing we crave might be a rousing chorus of ‘Back in Black’, or the scent your partner wore when you first met. It might be a single mouthful of a favourite food, or a foot massage. Or definitely not any of those things.

If we can find the strength to focus on our impermanence whilst we’re healthy we can seek to design our final moments — whether it’s preference on setting or the creation of a mood. Without written instruction you might hit infinity and beyond from a hospice when you’d rather be at home. Or vice-versa.

If The Final Countdown is likely to appear in your final playlist, note it. Not for the funeral, but whilst you’re still around. Our hearing is the last sense to go even as we slip into unconsciousness (a dubious blessing if Europe’s Greatest Hits are in the ether).

Whether it’s music or words, a wish list isn’t going to be a life-saver, but it could be a god-send. Who knows, a chapter of ‘Stig of the Dump’ to take us down the subconscious paths of childhood dreams might be just the thing.

When my dad was ill his words about Classic FM’s slightly sombre offering one day rang in my ears: ‘this is a bit dismal’, he’d observed. Conversely he had one of the best mornings of his last year listening to Mary Ann Hobbs and Cerys Matthews during Radio 6’s International Day of Older Persons special. A coincidence, maybe, but without obvious favourites it helped me to put a selection together to ease the silence when it was his time to drift into it.

Today is a good day to die’ the Native American brave might have said, surveying the horizon. Presumably when our time comes, that day will be best suited for us. The hopeful speed of an arrow in the ticker seems preferable to me, but if a long-goodbye is on the cards our bucket lists should also be simple actions friends and relatives can easily deliver to soothe the soul. With a bit of thoughtful planning, we don’t need to have gone platinum to exit like stars.

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