Peter Popham: We have to confront our fear of death

We go through life giving the ugly fact that we won’t be here very much longer only the occasional glance

Diagnosed with aggressive oesophageal cancer and entering "the land of malady", the journalist Christopher Hitchens laments that "irony is my business, and I just can't see any ironies here" – then contradicts himself by finding about a dozen.

Suddenly he is "a finalist" in "whatever kind of a 'race' life may be", he writes in his Vanity Fair column. This doughty foe of boredom is under attack from something "so predictable and banal that it bores even me". The idea of "fighting" cancer is laughable, he says, "as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality".

But when the bitter laughter dies away, there is Hitch, locked away from healthy us, in a land where, he discovers, the powers of argument and invective that have made him so widely loved and feared and admired are no longer of any relevance.

That will be a massive but passing frustration for him, because he has other, more weighty problems on his plate. But it should be a matter of reflection for the rest of us, because we have made of Hitch a modern sage, one of the people we turn to to put us right about things. And suddenly, with death breathing down his neck, what he has to say is of no use to him, and is no use to us, either. He has failed us, and in his blunt way he comes clean about the fact. We treated him like a wise man, but it turns out he was just a clown. The bitter laughter dies away and there remains just the frisson of fear to communicate. As Philip Larkin put it in Aubade, "Not to be here,/ Not to be anywhere,/ And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true."

Death is a problem for our age as it was not for ages past, precisely because (speaking of the non-religious majority) we behave as if it were a problem we had already solved. Church-goers are confronted week in week out with images of agonising death, talk of the "mystery" of death, exhortations to prepare for it, prayers for those approaching it. What Larkin called the "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade" of religion serves to soften us up, week after week, to its odiousness and inevitability, the wormwood and the gall.

Materialists like Hitch and like us believe we have outgrown all that nonsense. What in particular we say we have outgrown is the fairy story that if we lead a good life and confess our sins we will come out of it fine on the other side. But in spurning all that we also spare ourselves the weekly dousing in the fact of mortality. And this allows us to go through life as children and animals do, giving the ugly fact that we won't be here very much longer only the occasional fleeting glance. Then comes the stroke, the aneurysm, the waking up one fine morning feeling, as Hitchens put it, "as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse", and we are drastically unprepared. We are at the South Pole in a pair of shorts and trainers, and the jaunty smile does not survive.

That's some of us, perhaps most of us, because mankind cannot bear very much reality, as T S Eliot pointed out. Then there are the others, equally modern, equally unburdened with religious convictions, who face the fact of their dying calmly and soberly and treat the disposal of their own life as if it were merely another item in the will. These are the people, including my own late lamented father, who write advance directives, also known as living wills, to dictate the sort of medical treatment they will and will not accept if a sudden attack renders them incapable of making their desires known.

It sounds like a good idea. It is undeniably true that advances in medical science have enabled doctors to prolong life beyond the point where many people would think it was worth living. But there is a delusion at the heart of this activity, quite as much as there is in the attitude of those who devote as little thought to their death as they can. And the delusion lies in believing that the self is a fixed, unchanging entity, while one's life is something distinct and separate from it which we can enjoy like an ice cream when it is in good shape but may discard like poison when it turns bitter.

Joan Bakewell and her panel members wrestled with the ghastly story of such a person on the Radio 4 programme Inside the Ethics Committee last week: a middle-aged woman suffering from rheumatoid arthritis who wrote a living will and then decided to anticipate its provisions by committing suicide – only the suicide attempt failed, leaving her hapless partner to decide whether to leave her to die slowly and in agony (or perhaps not at all) or to call the emergency services. Perhaps inevitably, he did the latter.

The ethics experts carefully combed out the tangled strands of this sad tale, which ended a year or two later with the woman's death from a stroke. But one didn't have to believe that life is a gift from God to see that, instead of bringing the woman the speedy and welcome release she sought, her effort to flee life instead visited atrocious misery on herself, her partner and the medical staff who had to deal with her, torn between the compulsion to save life and the duty to obey the patient's wishes.

Her error lay in having arrived at a commodified view of life, as if it were a piece of property whose disposal was entirely her own business: exactly the sort of mad idea that our materialistic society breeds. Whereas the truth is that the self, to the extent that one can speak of such a thing, is in constant flux, one's expectations from life are in constant evolution, and nothing we do is "our own business" – everything impinges on everything else in the universe.

We needed to rouse ourselves from the sleep of superstition, but in doing so we have collapsed into the narcosis of materialism. And waking from that to the reality of death is a far nastier matter.