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Are We Just Shit at Death?

We all know deep down that we just rot. And that's fine. We need to get over it and talk about how we take care of those in the process of dying.
April 12, 2015, 4:27am

Definitely dead. Photo via istolethetv

It felt like a lot of people were talking about death last week, but perhaps that was because I was thinking about death. Specifically, the death of grandparents. It was likely an example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which, like any good phenomenon, applies to a number of fairly familiar experiences, most notably that of learning a new word and then seeing it all the time. It's basically a cognitive bias where you want to notice something, and suddenly you see it everywhere.

What I wanted to notice was people being a bit blasé about the deaths of elderly relatives. And lo and behold, with my premise decided, people began failing to give proper gravitas to the passing of the aged. Stand-ups were mocking clichéd Facebook grief. Some heartless old prick was giving my friend just one day off for his grandmother's funeral. Conversation partners were stifling yawns as I tried to vocalize my feelings about my own grandmother's recent passing.

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The unspoken consensus rang loud and clear: grandparents die. All the time. It's sad but inevitable. In fact, it's as banal to the young as somebody else's break up. Fine. Got the message. And weeks on from Granny T's passing, I was over it.

But soon, like an inventive teen working his way around a strict content-filter, my subconscious managed to smuggle weirder feelings to the fore. I realized then that in her final earthly act, the old girl had funneled, from beyond the realm of finger-buffets and careful, condoling smiles, something of the sublime nature of death. She'd wreaked existential damage on all who knew her, a 'fate-that-awaits-us-all' anxiety. She hurt us with her pain and confusion, her scabby-mouthed death rattle, and, before that, her inability to view her final place of residence, a (by British standards, relatively good) nursing home, as anything other than a senseless prison, loud with death.

I tried to reconcile all of this with my learned appreciation of the banality of grandparental death, the draining monotony that precedes it, the sad predictability of the stories that surround it. And reconcile it too with that vacuous Facebook sentimentality and the tired scorn it arouses, and with the inconvenience that funerals pose to friends in need of a midweek pint-partner.

This failed reconciliation led me to question how well we deal with death as a society, not just in terms of the efficacy of our end-of-life care but also of our cultural treatment of the subject, the meaning we derive from it. I wondered: Are we shit at death?

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My grandma's final days (which lasted about two years) were mottled with difficult questions: "When are you taking me away from here?" "Can I live with you?" "Do you have any money to get me better care?" It should be said that her carers were great, but they were overstretched. They didn't have the time or resources to help her make sense of what she was enduring. A lot of the time her mind was addled by dementia, but through the illogical fog pulsed a weird sort of insight. It felt like she was divining some utopian alternate version of death, one unencumbered by economic constraints and social and cultural conventions.

By 2050, across the globe, older people will outnumber under-15s for the first time. The number of elderly people living in the US and the UK is rising steadily. The percentage of the population aged 85 or over currently stands at 1.7 in both nations. By 2037, the 85+ population in the UK is estimated to make up 4.2 percent of the population.

According to one study, only 21 percent of British adults have discussed their end of life wishes with another person.

In March, a Commons Health Committee report called for vast improvements in the end-of-life care for people living in the UK and a 'better recording of what people want in their last days.' Yet, there's no bold proposal to make things better and, what's more, health and social services in the UK were badly cut during the last parliament and likely will be again during the next. David Cameron was recently heckled by some old people as he tried to defend his health and social care policy.

"The continual exclusion of aging from national and global agendas is one of the biggest obstacles to meeting the needs of the world's aging population," said Silvia Stefanoni, the interim chief executive of HelpAge International, in reaction to a 2013 UN report ranking countries in terms of quality of elderly care. The UK came 13th and the USA 8th, which, I admit, puts things in perspective somewhat. Things could be worse, a lot worse. But isn't that one of the most regressive ways of responding to a problem? "At least things aren't even shittier?"

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Things could be better and they should be. More like they are in Sweden, the country ranked *…drumroll…* highest globally in the UN report. No surprise there. Scandinavian countries always score highly in these kind of indexes. In Sweden and Denmark, virtually all elderly care is paid for by taxation and government grants. Citizens of these countries are the highest taxed in the world, but know they can look forward to the best end of life care humankind is currently capable of providing. (Wealth and spending do not equate exactly with quality of care, as countries such as Sri Lanka and Bolivia demonstrate.)

It seems other countries are already looking to Scandinavia for exemplary guidance. Canada's Chronicle Herald reports, with an almost envious tone, on how the Swedes and the Danes treat their old and dying. Last year, UK Care Minister Norman Lamb visited Sweden and said, upon his return, something to the effect of, "We basically need to be more like them." What's clear is that the Swedish state, unlike the UK's, is good at listening to the individual wants and needs of its dying and adapting appropriately.

Stefanoni's comments have an eerie validity: we just aren't very good at talking about this stuff. In 2014, a survey by the spine-tinglingly titled Dying Matters Coalition discovered that 80 percent of people felt that death is an uncomfortable subject to discuss, and that only 21 percent of British adults had discussed their end of life wishes with another person. A similar survey in California found that 76% of respondents had not planned their end-of-life wishes, despite recognizing the importance of doing so.

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The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, a strangely uplifting book, states that "shame is frequently overlooked in the literature on death." It quotes Silvan Tomkins, a (dead) American psychologist, who wrote that death always involves "shame from many sources." Shame, the Encyclopedia explains, is a major inhibitor and enabler in the grieving process. Our capacity for shame is one of the few emotional instruments we have for dealing with death. But does contemporary culture and its psychological effects make death feel too shameful? And, if so, is this surfeit of shame the reason why we're not better at talking about the subject?

Perhaps we need a modern Ars Morienda, a type of medieval text whose name means "The Art of Dying." These writings began a centuries-long tradition of writing on the subject of a good death. Following Christian protocols, Ars Morienda served to persuade the dying person that death is nothing to be afraid of because the soul will migrate to heaven. The texts also offered practical advice, about, for example, how the family should behave at the bedside. Now that western Christianity is undergoing the final twitches of a prolonged rigor mortis, we should begin a new Ars Moriendi tradition which teaches that death is nothing to be afraid of, while maintaining that the concept of a soul is something invented long ago, in stupider times.

Millennials confronting death in Lily Wood & The Prick and Robin Schulz's "Prayer in C" music video

I'll never forget the moment when, aged about 13, I sat in a religious studies class and felt my mind rattled by a big question, posed by the notoriously semi-Christian Mr. Chorlton: "What happens to us when we die?" Silence in the classroom. Time stopped. The very clouds, which had spent all that morning drifting with expert confidence around the sky, now seemed to freeze in existential alarm. And thus spake Gordon Greaves (a boy known only theretofore for being tall and OK at soccer): "You just rot." Massive words, right? Now imagine them spoken offhandedly in a pubescent Leeds accent and you've acquainted yourself with my whole position on mortality. You just rot.

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Kids squealed. Chorlton sweated. The clouds actually fell out of the sky. And I spent the next 13 years feeling a little bit more OK about things.

We all know deep down that we just rot. And that's fine. But the whole neo-Christian-Capitalist complex encourages us to believe otherwise: that we might just survive death, that if we keep taking selfies and changing the subject and cutting public services and try not to think about it too much, it might just never happen. And even if it does, it's not really the end.

I say let's talk about death all the time, in all its flesh-rotting, worm-feeding, gut-putrefying glory.

Another thing those medieval guys got right was to keep the memento mori ("remember [you have] to die") trope prominent in the culture. About 96 percent of medieval and Renaissance paintings have skulls in them. Shakespeare went mad for them. In fairness to them, paintings and Shakespeare were the only entertainment they had. The only memento mori work we have is the song "Don't Fear the Reaper" from 1972 and that's now a song that only dads and kids who play Guitar Hero know.

Yes, people have skull tattoos but skulls have become fetishized, just another empty signifier ready to be reified and profited from, as Damien Hirst so expensively proved.

Another cultural item of demonstrative interest: the music video to Lily Wood & The Prick's "Prayer in C" (Robin Shulz Remix), a song which topped the charts in over 20 territories and will serve as the official anthem of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The video features a load of Millennials engaging in their favorite pastimes: laughing, skateboarding, putting stickers on lampposts, and, of course, appropriating Mexican Day of the Dead imagery. There's Dios de los Muertos imagery everywhere: on the lampposts, on their faces, on a dog's bandana, everywhere! If you have a phobia of Mexican Day of the Dead imagery, do not watch this video!

Does "Prayer in C" portend the emergence of a new comfort with mortality in mainstream youth culture? A closer inspection of the song's lyrics entails a slightly bleaker interpretation. Juxtaposed with the video's aesthetic, the lyrics establish a new kind of vanitas tradition. This is not memento mori as in "remember [you have] to die," but as in "remember [escalating crises of global capitalism will soon cause the entire species] to die [and there's nothing we can do about it]." It evokes not a peaceful equanimity in the face of one's own mortality but an insurgent impulse to dance and drink and put stickers on things.

It all makes me wonder what kind of death I can anticipate, as compared to my grandmother's. My friend, the funnyman Alastair Roberts, one typically less histrionic in outlook than me, told me he thinks our generation will have a pretty easy exit, because of likely advances in technology and medicine. His optimism conjures a vision of the kind of utopia my grandma was hinting at. One of music therapy, robot nurses, Oculus Rifts, Soma-style drugs and nostalgia machines chomping up and regurgitating whole lifetimes of social media data.

Wouldn't be so bad, I guess. As for me, I think I'd just like to go peacefully, in my sleep.

Liam Williams is a comedian living in London.