I decided against watching Terry Prachett’s programme, Choosing to Die, because I am reluctant to intrude on somebody facing one of life’s most intimate moments. Dying, like being born, needs to be treated as a mystery rather than an event: it draws those who are witnesses beyond the realm of time into a world which can simultaneously be both terrifying and comforting. It is terrifying because, ultimately, we have no control: it is comforting because, ultimately, we have no control. The primary task of those present at both birth and death is the same, namely to be midwives in processes which are at the same time natural and supernatural.
Choosing to Die is a significant moment in the assisted suicide debate which gives an opportunity for the Church to respond not simply by rehearsing the arguments against, but to provide a wider and more creative context in which the debate can take place. Three points emerge. First, paradoxically, assisted suicide removes the very opportunity to choose to die that it claims to provide. Secondly, society has forgotten the art of dying and finally, it neglects the mysterious nature of death.
Like a lot of clergy, I have been with many dying people. I have conducted funerals of elderly people whose passing, though deeply grieved, has been recognised as a natural end to a life well-lived. I have also conducted funerals of young people, prematurely and unjustly snatched away and of children who died before they had a chance to live. Some passed gently into that dark night, others raged against it. For some death was peaceful – for others it was wracked with pain. But what I observed in many instances is people choosing to die. They may not articulate this desire (though some do) but at some place deep within, a choice is made which affects their whole being and the direction of their illness. Pain, weariness or loneliness meant that their investment in this life diminished and they were ready to move on. They loosened their ties with the world and were ready, even eager, to embrace whatever they believed was – or was not – to come. What they were seeking was not a glass of lethal barbiturates provided by others which would end their life before they were completely ready to die, but rather help and support as they negotiated, within themselves, with God and with others, this journey into the unknown. Like those coming into this world, they needed midwives to support them as they departed from it.
Prachett’s Choosing to Die highlights two other important issues. Firstly, society has forgotten the art of dying. In the past, we acknowledged and managed the mystery of death and dying by employing rituals. The family would be gathered. The priest would say prayers. Nearest relatives would wear black. In some places the clocks would be stopped and the bees would be told. Such rituals gave permission for people to act unusually, sometimes incomprehensibly, in the face of the incomprehensible. However, in an increasingly fragmenting society where faith and symbolism are being sidelined and the thought of not being in control is considered to be a flaw in our humanity, we are losing touch with (and losing faith in) the rituals which are a support in the face of death. In other words, ritual itself is mistrusted. The logical consequence of this – and this is my second point – is that death is regarded as an ordinary, everyday occurrence rather than as the mystery that it is because society has lost faith in the language and action with which it needs to be negotiated and managed. Organisations like Dignitas, which are embodiments of assisted suicide, are the logical outcome. They provide places where control is clawed back and mystery is removed.
It is important that the Church enters vigorously the debate about assisted suicide and the ethical issues surrounding it. But it is equally important to provide a wider context by drawing on the resources and wisdom within the Church about the nature of death and dying and the ways of negotiating and managing this mystery. This will affect the direction and perhaps even the outcome of the debate.
What is this wider context and how can the Church contribute to it? A while ago, I was asked to speak at a pensioners’ forum which was sponsored by local organisations. While most talks illustrated the various activities that could be undertaken in retirement, ranging from the sedentary to the hyper-active, I spoke of the opportunity to live fully while at the same time preparing for death. The stories, hopes and anxieties which emerged from the audience when permission was given to speak about death were both moving and profound. The Church, encouraged by confidence in Christ and not held back by the fear of death in society, needs to speak more naturally about death and dying and the conversation begins within congregations. Death and dying is a topic to be preached from the pulpit and discussed in home groups. Adult Christians, regardless of age and state of health, can be encouraged to write their own funeral services, revisiting them each Lent. The popularity of services around the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls point to a wider hunger for an acknowledgement of death and bereavement: there are other significant occasions for ministry, supported by a range of liturgies, such as for those approaching death and for prayers at home before a funeral. A dialogue with people from other faiths, rich in ritual and ceremony surrounding death, will raise the profile of this mystery. Natural conversation about death within worshipping communities will seep into wider communities giving permission to a society, afraid to speak of death, to rediscover and re-appropriate healthy rituals around death and dying.
Accounts say that towards the end, Mr. Smedley requested water, but was refused. This would have been a harrowing cry and significant moment, reminiscent of Christ’s own cry of thirst on the cross. In Christ’s case, a soldier responded. Christ’s thirst has been interpreted as echoing humanity’s thirst for God – death and dying take all involved beyond the realm of time towards eternity and one of the Church’s tasks is to recognise humanity’s thirst by helping manage and negotiate the journey between this world and the next.