The taboos of modern death

The Way We Die Now

by Seamus O’Mahony

(Head of Zeus, £14.99)

Author Seamus O’Mahony’s theme is death, in its “awesome grandeur”, and how we deal with it today.

Our forefathers celebrated death, which they considered a moment of transition, the embrace of the divine, a release from toil and poverty, with feasting and revelry. Our attitude to death is different from theirs. Many of us now believe death to be the end, the sad but inevitable event that more and better medical technology can only delay. 

We struggle to accept that, for all our knowledge, we are mere mortal creatures, like the fox that sheltered in O’Mahony’s garden shed to await its death. Mortality has replaced sex as a taboo subject.

When we do ponder it we hope that we will go peacefully, without pain, in the presence of loved ones. We imagine a light-filled room, the loving gazes of our children. Some of us will die that good death. 

Of those of us who die natural deaths, most will pass away not at home, or in a hospice, but in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital, where specialists and medical facilities are concentrated. Before we go we may be too sedated to say goodbye, or feel a loved one’s final caress, utter a final prayer. We may also suffer the indignity of incontinence.

O’Mahony argues that we can overcome our fear of dying by seeking the company of the dead. 

One of his favourite pastimes is taking a walk around St Finbarr’s cemetery in Cork, imagining the lives lived by the people whose names are engraved on the stones, the circumstances of their deaths, the joys and tragedies they experienced. They lived and worked in the same city as he does today; they are gone, and some day he will go as well. 

In ancient times a dying man would choose an amicus mortis – a death friend – to keep him company in his final days. It is a custom we could usefully revive. Ideally, the death friend would be someone who has known a dying man for a good part of his life. It is unthinkable now, but not so long ago it was common for GPs to visit their dying patients. 

Not everyone wants company in death. Some of us will eschew talk to stare at the wall and wait. O’Mahony notes that belief in God and an afterlife do not necessarily make the final hours bearable for the dying. 

He discusses human mortality with calm authority, drawing on his experiences of it in his personal life, and in his professional life as a consultant gastroenterologist. His book is considered and serious, as the subject demands, seasoned with rich anecdotes and appropriate humour, and above all uplifting. 

It will inspire reflection, and deserves to be widely read.