Art of Dying Volume One | Page 19

It’s fair to say most of us don’t have a very good relationship with death. At least not in the West, where one in three Americans say they would ask doctors to do anything possible to keep them alive, according to a Nov. 2013 Pew poll, and only one in three UK adults have prepared a will. To fight off death, we’ve founded research groups like Google-backed biotech company Calico, whose mission is to halt the aging process, and the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize, dedicated to finding scientific cures for old age. All are signs of what US anthropologist Ernest Becker identified in 1973 as a civilization-wide “denial of death,” in which the sum of human activity is simply an expression of our inability to accept the inevitable. But we have to get over it. Humans should apply their creativity and innovative power to redesigning the inevitable, not futilely inching away from it. Quantified Self products like the new heart sensor-equipped Apple Watch are designed to help you hack your own body into a more efficient, longer-lasting, biological machine, but a world of widespread longevity would be a mess. Current human society is designed around a 100-year-or-less lifespan. Saving enough money to sustain just a few decades of old age is already hard. Who has the savings to retire forever? The more useful and meaningful innovation would be not how to live longer, but how to die better. We struggle to plan for death because the assumptions we hold about dying are formed by what we see around us. It should be telling that the death scene voted “most iconic” in a March 2015 poll of UK movie audiences is neither real, nor human: it’s the death of Mustafa in Disney’s The Lion King. Pop culture has left us deeply misinformed. Popular television shows like US hospital drama ER have been found to portray a grossly unrealistic CPR resuscitation success rate of 75%, while in real emergency rooms, the survival rate is less than 10%. And even if, once in a while, we may tear up over a hero or heroine’s onscreen death, the cameras always pass quickly on to the next scene — characters die, but the story always continues. Now, not only do we want to live forever, we suspect it’s possible. And the few deaths that we see are romantically misconstrued as noble, painless, fleeting, until we come to our own and realize — too late — that dying is not that simple. The most common way to die is the hospitalized death by natural causes, an involuntary, drug-smoothed transition usually overseen by health professionals who have lost the long struggle for the patient’s life. About 50% of people in the UK (and two-thirds of the elderly) die in hospitals, even though, according to the BBC, only 7% of British people say they want to die there. Most would rather die at home. In the Medieval tradition, “how to die well” was first prescribed by the Ars Moriendi — Art of Dying — an illustrated guide to preparing the mind, body and soul for death (and the first book to be printed on moveable type, after the Bible). The book, subtitled inspiration against despair, considered that planning a good death meant caring for the whole needs of the terminally ill person: not just medical, but social, Illustration plate, Ars Moriendi c. 1450 VOLUME I | 19