Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Sometimes Death Seems Better Than Life

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Sometimes Death Seems Better Than Life

Article excerpt

Byline: JONATHAN REE

THE WELCOME VISITOR: LIVING WELL, DYING WELL by John Humphrys with Sarah Jarvis (Hodder, [pounds sterling]16.99)

A GENERATION ago, doctors were allowed to give "old age" as the cause of death on death certificates but not any more: every death must now be ascribed to a specific medical condition. Other creatures may succumb to decrepitude or exhaustion but we humans are supposed to carry on till struck down by traumas or diseases that refuse to respond to treatment. Death is no longer an immovable fate but a medical failure.

When the National Health Service was founded in 1948, it was meant to cure our illnesses swiftly and get us back to a healthy and productive life; but it was soon realised that a large proportion of its assets were being directed to patients on the point of death. And now that medical advances have raised the average age of adult death from 65 to around 80, dying has become not a sudden catastrophe but a medically supervised way of life.

The first person to tackle the problem of modern dying was the London doctor Cicely Saunders, who founded St Christopher's Hospice in Sydenham in 1968. Inspired by her Christian faith, Saunders maintained that people with terminal illnesses needed not only medical treatment but also sustained and engaging activity, attentive conviviality and a chance to say "thank you" or "sorry" to the people they loved.

When Saunders died in 2005, she had the satisfaction of knowing that her model of "palliative care" was being imitated in more than 200 new institutions in Britain, and 8,000 in the rest of the world. But she was appalled when the Dignitas clinic opened in Zurich in 1998 to facilitate suicide for Lucid and the terminally ill. She had always been liberal with pain relief, even if it might shorten a patient's life, but she was absolutely opposed to any attempt to hasten death, and glad to have the British legal system firmly on her side. …

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