Magazine article The Spectator

'With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial', by Kathryn Mannix - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial', by Kathryn Mannix - Review

Article excerpt

In the words of Dad's Army's Private Frazer: 'We're all doomed.' Life remains a dangerous business whose outcome is always fatal. Despite all kinds of medical progress, the death rate is stubbornly fixed at 100 per cent, while the ways in which we die remain unchanged.

At the same time, in a magnificent demonstration of cognitive dissonance, abetted by medical science, the human animal continues to cherish the fantasies of immortality that enable us, in Churchill's stoic formula, to 'keep buggering on'.

This thrilling tension between the forces of life and death has always inspired two basic attitudes to mortality. First, a realistic, even forensic, fascination with the sensations and protocols of that last exit. Second, a kind of blithe detachment from it.

With the End in Sight and From Here to Eternity express both of these moods. Depending on your point of view -- morbid or never say die -- each title has something useful to say to the baby-boom generations for whom, in the words of Kathryn Mannix, a seasoned death consultant, 'death has become increasingly taboo'.

Mannix not only wants to 'talk about dying', she is also determined to make death a part of everyday life in the way it was for our ancestors. She argues that we have lost the familiarity we once had with the inevitable end-game. We have also lost the vocabulary and etiquette surrounding the appearance of the grim reaper:

Instead of dying in a dear and familiar room with people we love around us, we now die in ambulances and emergency rooms and intensive care units, our loved ones separated from us by the machinery of life preservation.

Mannix is not only a more serious writer than Caitlin Doughty, her narrative gains greatly from the specificity of a focus derived from the intense variety of her experience in palliative medicine. Although With the End in Mind is rich in arresting, and occasionally moving, deathbed scenes, its message is simple: 'Living is precious, and is perhaps best appreciated when we live with the end in mind.'

En route to this conclusion, Mannix takes us via the Intensive Care Unit, mortuary and operating theatre to the many antechambers of death and dying. She is nothing if not critical of the zeitgeist, regretting that euphemisms such as 'passed' or 'lost' have replaced 'died' and 'dead'. Above all, Mannix wants to reclaim the language of illness and dying for better conversations about death. …

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