In real life I have seen two people die which is more than some and a great deal less than many others. One was my mother and one was an unfortunate woman who died on the bus next to me in Oxford Street. "Give her a nudge, love," said the bus conductor when we got to the end of the route as the elderly woman next to me appeared to have nodded off. When she did not respond, the ambulance was called and I was shocked not just because someone had died peacefully while sitting next to me but by the necessary violence of the medical teams efforts to resuscitate her. There she was in public being thumped about. They tried for ages before they let her go. Perhaps I should have looked away but I felt somehow involved and because even with such a public death I knew that what was happening was way beyond my understanding.
Now a real-life death is to be shown on TV. In a major new BBC series called The Human Body, presented by the fertility expert Lord Winston, the last moments of a dying man will be shown. This is taboo busting of the highest order. Real death, as opposed to the representation of death, is the final frontier for television. Both the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard have run highly critical pieces about this. No one questions the credentials of the programme's presenter, Lord Winston, who, as a doctor, is acknowledged to have been highly sensitive in the way that this particular death was filmed. The dying man gave his permission, yet what seems to upset most people is the very idea of filming death itself. But if we are truly worried about death for death's sake, about the inherent voyeurism in all of us, we would not watch the movies we do, we would not drag our kids around dungeons to see animatronic models of tortured and dying souls, we would not have been so excited about the possibility of pictures of a dying princess that were circulated at the time.
To say that death is a taboo subject is to say nothing new or even particularly interesting. To ask whether we should make it less taboo and how we may do so might be. Lord Winston's argument is really one about education. He wrote in The Times of the film: "Wwe are celebrating a special individual and if, in the process, we learn a little more about death itself, we augment his memory." Does seeing death make us understand it any more? No. I think it remains as mysterious as ever. We are not suddenly going to "come to terms", or any other banal phrase you care to use, with death by staring dying in the face - someone else's face. Yet our deliberate policy of making death invisible is clearly not satisfactory. The euphemisms, the hiding away of all evidence of death, the sanitised rituals surrounding it, result in increasing fear of death rather than an acceptance of it. The more modern and secular a culture becomes, the more terrifying death appears, for it really is the end rather than the beginning of another form of life.
I will never forget being in Varanasi, in India, by the holy river Ganges where bodies wrapped only in thin sheets are burned on wooden pyres. When the skull finally explodes and pops, crowds cheer, as the soul has been released. At my mother's cremation, as is the routine, the coffin merely slid away behind curtains. To where? To what? "Is the fire going to hurt her?", cried my then four year old who kept declaring proudly and loudly throughout the funeral: "I know who is in the box. It's my Nana".
Watching my mother die did not teach me much about how to die but a lot about how to live. The enormous relief that came over her face when I took her to a hospice remains with me. Everything changed from that moment on. As long as someone is in hospital it doesn't matter how terminally ill they are, there is some sort of pretence that things are not as bad as they really are. Successful pain management is supposedly available to NHS patients but I'm sorry to say I never saw it.
Once we reached the hospice not only was the pain controlled but the visibility of death, of what was actually happening, was present. Everyone had their own room and as much privacy as they wanted, yet the humanity and honesty of the staff meant that death was not simply a failure of medicine but the inevitable end of an intimate journey. It was accepted that the dying still wanted hairdressers, televisions and alcohol. Just like the living.
At the time I felt very angry that other people seemed to be dying better deaths than my mother. There was Dennis Potter with Melvyn, flying on morphine and mesmerising us with his eloquence, making us feel his very aliveness. There was Derek Jarman confronting in his art the shutting down of his body. And there was me and my Mum still having the same old rows. "Why can't you just smarten yourself up?", she yelled while she lay with tubes coming out of every part of her body. Why, I thought, can't she have any great philosophical insights about dying? She had only the one: that she wasn't ready to go.
So I imagine her death was fairly average because death is fairly average. I didn't sell pictures of her dying to flog jumpers, as Bennetton did with their notorious picture of a man dying of Aids. I didn't use it to make multi-media art, as artists such as Bill Viola have done. I didn't publish pictures of it to end some kind of political injustice, like great photographers such as Don McCullin have done. I have exploited her death only by writing about it. Yet I am writing about it now because I saw it; and that, these days, is unusual. I have no desire to see anyone else die before my eyes. I may or may not watch the controversial programme in question but I want the right to.
To look at death makes us realise us that every death is a private and individual act, whether there are witnesses present or not. With the dying, seeing may not necessarily be believing - the common reaction to a corpse is always that they look exactly the same as before, yet there is something imperceptibly different. Yet, to understand the difference between death and life, sometimes one has to see it. Hiding death away does not cheat it. It deceives us into feeling that we might live for ever, rather than live as well as we can while we have the chance.Reuse content