Category Archives: death

Death as a faux pas

When A.E. Housman was born, writes Dalrymple,

at least a quarter of children died before the age of five, and one in six before he was 12 months old. Housman’s much-loved mother died when he was 12, and her death caused him to lose his religious belief. Death was not then the best-kept secret of life, as it is now, hidden away out of sight as a kind of social faux pas, or locked away from view as mad relatives once were, but an ever-present reality that could result from a trivial accident or seemingly minor illness. In fact, it would have taken a special kind of obtuseness not to have noticed the fragility of the human hold on life.

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What a way to go

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.59.08Burying himself in The Bibliomania, or Book-Madness, Containing Some Account of the History, Symptoms and Cure of this Fatal Disease, by the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Dalrymple enjoys the description of a man who,

on his deathbed, excitedly sent out for books from the catalogue of a bookseller, his obsession keeping him happy until the very moment of his death.

His library of 50,000 books was sold posthumously for a third of what it cost him,

but if the really important business of life is to die well, then no better death could be imagined.

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The Victorians did the dead proud

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 18.49.45Dalrymple perambulates in the cemetery outside the town where he lives when in England. The cemetery was established, he writes, in the early 1850s

because the churchyards were full to bursting and the Victorians fretted about the unsanitary nature of burial in the middle of towns and cities, as we fret over the deleterious effects of pesticides.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 18.50.01It retains its character,

with a gothic entrance and two gothic chapels, and a winding path between the hills, the slopes of which are sown with sandstone or granite tombstones.

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Why should the dying have all the best deaths?

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 11.04.23Dalrymple quips that it might be considered

whether confining euthanasia to the dying was illegitimate discrimination in their favour.

But he checks himself.

Perhaps one should not joke, bearing in mind that satire nowadays is prophecy.

They must have done something wrong to die

Dalrymple writes that, when he was young, death,

if it occurred at all, seemed almost a moral judgment on the lives of the departed rather than a purely natural event in those lives.

Bruegel, Triumph of Death, c. 1560. Prado

Bruegel, Triumph of Death, c. 1560. Prado

 

How the noble die

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 22.37.30Dalrymple writes that he used to pass the time of day

with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. ‘Not very well,’ he said. ‘I’m very sorry to hear that,’ I replied. ‘Well,’ he said quietly, and with a slight smile, ‘we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?’ Two weeks later, he was dead.

Dalrymple often remembers

the nobility of this quite ordinary man’s conduct and words. He wanted an appropriate, but only an appropriate, degree of commiseration from me; in his view, which was that of his generation and culture, it was a moral requirement that emotion and sentiment should be expressed proportionately, and not in an exaggerated or self-absorbed way. My acquaintance with him was slight; therefore my regret, while genuine, should be slight. (Oddly enough, my regret has grown over the years, with the memory.) Further, he considered it important that he should not embarrass me with any displays of emotion that might discomfit me. A man has to think of others, even when he is dying.

Words of consolation

Portrait of a dead child, c. 1650. Flemish

Portrait of a dead child, c. 1650. Flemish

PHYSICIAN: Your brat is dead.

MOTHER: Ohhhhhh. [weeping]

PHYSICIAN: Pull yourself together.

MOTHER: Ohhhhhh! [weeping now uncontrollably]

PHYSICIAN: Try to consider other people, other times. Not much more than a century ago, an eighth of all children died before their first birthday. Your child lived to three-and-a-half. You’re one of the lucky ones.

MOTHER: [Drying her eyes] Oh doctor, thank you. That perspective was much needed. It helps me to put this behind me.

Dalrymple points out that no-one

is comforted by the idea that others were worse off than he, which perhaps explains why complaint does not decrease in proportion to improvement in general conditions.

Physician-assisted suicide

Dalrymple can see both sides of the argument. ‘As I approach death,’ he writes,

or…as death approaches me…I pray that mine will not come in the horrible ways I have seen as a doctor. I think, though I cannot be sure, that I would like to choose my moment if one of those horrible ways were mine.

Guts spilling out of a sheep’s open belly

It was dead, wasn’t it, Theodore?