In search of a good death

Pandemic has demonstrated that as much as a good life, people desire a good exit too

Published - June 06, 2021 12:32 am IST

A man puts a red rose on the grave

A man puts a red rose on the grave

In these virus-induced deadly moments of gloom and doom, death has taken centre stage in most private and public conversations. For once, a “good death” is what people aspire for their loved ones with end-stage COVID-19 complications. In these hours of morbidity all around, thinking about good life may not be altogether a misplaced thought. After all, a good life has been everybody’s cherished dream.

In this context, I am curiously reminded how my elderly relatives would often return my respectful bow with blessings to “live a hundred years”. Even some friends, surprised by my unexpected call, do exclaim to this day, “You’ll live a hundred years!” A wish for “100 years” has been employed for toasts among diverse cultures and societies. If nothing, the feel-good wish triggers an optimism towards living a long life. And, why would anybody play it down?

In fact, nobody ever did. Instead those who first thought of it must have been hopeful of achieving the three-digit mark for humans. It is, however, another matter that for most of our long history as a species, our average life expectancy was capped at about 35. Perhaps the inspiration of jumping it three times over may have come from the life of some mythical characters like the invincible Bhishma, who lived long enough to witness four or five generations.

In recent times, the island of Okinawa in Japan has the highest number of people over the age of 100, but the average life expectancy is still quite far from catching up. Yet, there is a case for rejoicing as Steven Johnson explains in his recent book Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer that between the Spanish flu of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic, global life expectancy doubled to around 72. Humans have gained thousands of extra days to live.

Far from finding people jumping with joy on gaining those extra days, the number of people feeling stressed and miserable have actually been on the rise. Ironically, the same elders who bless me with “100 years” often wish for themselves an early exit from life. Why? Because all around, they find that the extra years gained are mostly spent living with pain, disease and dementia. For them, more years to life mean an expansion of morbidity at a higher cost.

Past her seventies, my paternal aunt would plead for a respectable exit from life each time I met her. While I dissuaded her from thinking so, she was clear in her mind that a profit-driven healthcare system and a hole-riddled social safety net would do no good to her for the rest of her life.

With a hip bone fracture to contend with and an alarming blood sugar level to negotiate daily, the extra nine years she gained were indeed of misery, pain and social neglect.

Given that death is the most basic fact of life, there are a growing number of social networks in medically advanced countries which advise and help people to take a rational call to exit life.

There is little doubt that unless the science of gerontology succeeds in squeezing ageing into an increasingly short period of life, life expectancy gains will prove a huge loss in the long term. The pandemic has shockingly demonstrated that as much as a good life, people desire a good death too.

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