- “We should aim for a good and rich life well lived, and at the end of it, in the comfort of our own home, in the company of those who love us, have a death worth dying for.” – Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett would have been 67 today had he not passed away earlier this year. Not a surprise, but instead quite publicly and audaciously anticipated in his superb Dimbleby Lecture “Terry Pratchett: Shaking Hands With Death”. The lecture itself is an embrace of failure – his failure to even speak consistently for extended periods. That constraint didn’t stop him though as he had actor Tony Robinson read out his prepared speech.
But it was the content of his “speech”, the embrace of the ultimate failure – death – that provides the resonance. Pratchett is no stranger to the character of “Death” who became one of the most popular characters in his Discworld novels (“He is, in short, a kindly death, cleaning up the mess that this life leaves, and opening the gate to the next one. Indeed, in some religions he is an angel.”)
But his words in the lecture were not the fantastical stories of graphic novels, but very real reflections on his real world relationship with this character…
- “When I was a very young newspaper journalist, learning my trade, we used to report on our paper that people have died of a long illness. Everybody knew what it meant. But no one spoke its name out loud. And then when Richard Dimbleby died of cancer in 1965 his family said: that in fact he died of cancer. And this shocked the nation that a Dimbleby was mortal and that they actually used the forbidden word. And somehow I felt that was a marvellous thing because it seemed to me that the war on cancer developed momentum right at that time. Before you can kill a monster, I always say, you have to be prepared to say its name.”
Pratchett goes into a reasoned polemic on the merits of “assisted dying” countering its many objections…
- Manipulation – “elderly people might be illegally persuaded into "asking" for assisted death”: “the idea that people would persuade themselves to die just because some hypothetical Acme One-Stop Death shop has opened down the road is fantastical.”
- Abuse – “vulnerable must be protected”: “tribunal would also serve to prevent, as much as humanly possible, any abuses.”
- Slippery Slope – “open the door to abuses all the way up to the culling of the elderly sick”: “that objection is a bogeyman.”
- Distrust – “people would not trust their doctor if they knew that they had the power to kill them”: “to bring your life to an end is placing the utmost trust in them.”
- Morality – “the God argument”: “that it only works if you believe in god.”
This topic is a recurring one for one of my other favourite writers – Scott Adams – who takes a more militant stand on the issue of assisted dying, especially in his controversial post “I Hope My Father Dies Soon”…
- “If my dad were a cat, we would have put him to sleep long ago. And not once would we have looked back and thought too soon. Because it’s not too soon. It’s far too late. His smallish estate pays about $8,000 per month to keep him in this state of perpetual suffering. Rarely has money been so poorly spent. I’d like to proactively end his suffering and let him go out with some dignity. But my government says I can’t make that decision. Neither can his doctors. So, for all practical purposes, the government is torturing my father until he dies.”
Death is indeed the ultimate failure, and until we as individuals and a society can embrace it’s reality, our wilful avoidance will amplify its inevitable grief and loss with pain and hardship.