In which Ruth meets a Rabbi and ponders Dying Well

Yesterday I sat with hundreds of others in a rather posh function room in the old Roxburghe Hotel listening to Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger talk about Dying Well. What a wonderful speaker she is – funny, passionate, knowledgeable, direct and above all, Jewish. Using no notes that I could see, she entertained us for 45 minutes on her favourite topic: Dying Well and why it Matters as our annual Malcolm Goldsmith Lecture. (Malcolm was a priest in our diocese who also had a penchant for working with the elderly and those with dementia, who died a few years ago.)

I took some notes which I will transcribe here but they really are brief, but I hear that her talk was recorded so may be available on line at some point in the future.

  • How you remember someone is coloured by their death – and it matters whether that was good or not.
  • Dying well matters for the person and for those who mourn.
  • Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) became popular in the 15th century and by the 18th century coincided with the use of laudanum.  (In Art shown as family standing around the deathbed in serried ranks as the person lay still on the bed. No thrashing about. Laudanam brings a peaceful, still death.)
  • By the 19th century death is talked about, perhaps sentimentally, but is not so scary.
  • WW1 changes things. Begin to hear euphemisms (pop your clogs, hop the twig) as people don’t want to face up to all those young men dying in the war and with the flu pandemic.
  • Mary Aikenhead, Sisters of Charity, began what we now call the Hospice movement working with those dying of the plague.
  • Modern hospice movement begun by Dame Cicely Saunders for cancer sufferers.
  • Today under 5% of people die in a hospice, yet hospitals don’t think they are places where people should die – they are places to get well – so don’t spend money or resources on making them good places to die.
  • Liverpool Pathway comes in to place.
  • Today 25% die of cancer, 75% of other diseases. Hospices designed for cancer sufferers but now need to specialise in those 75% who don’t need the same treatment – and it can be a very different death.
  • We need death education.
  • Some faiths and countries have it right – Irish wakes, Jewish, Sikh and Muslims who all visit the bereaved, talk about the dead and eat food. We cross over on the other side of the road because we don’t know what to say to the grieving.
  • All people should have an Advanced Directive / Living Will. It should be reviewed regularly and talked about with your family, along with issues such as Power of Attorney.
  • Things to think about for your death: who do we want there (or not!); where it should be; what level of pain control; what we want to do beforehand; do we want food and drink; do we want religious support; do we want our neighbours/friends there.
  • Things to discuss with medical staff: to know when its coming; what to expect; control over where it will be; control over pain relief; access to hospice; who with you; time to say goodbye; to be able to go when it is right and not have it prolonged.

These last 2 lists are not complete but I couldn’t get it all written down.

As regular readers of this blog will know I am a great advocate of Preparing Your Own Funeral and even designed a form to give out to people to do just that. I’m endlessly banging on about it so it was great to hear someone taking that further. I have since reaped the rewards of that when I have been involved in three funerals where it was used and made such a difference. Why not make that your Lent action? Your family will thank you for it.

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3 thoughts on “In which Ruth meets a Rabbi and ponders Dying Well

  1. > Laudanam brings a peaceful, still death.
    If only a merciful government allowed it to be sold in chemists’ shops as it used to be (not withheld by officious, moralising doctors determined to prolong lives beyond human endurance) and a merciful church were as eager to prevent human suffering as it is to prevent animal suffering, the world would be a better and a kinder place.

  2. would really be glad to see your form, perhaps you could include it in some fashion? I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, and would like to make sure that family etc know what is wanted, rather than suddenly having to deal with something.

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