A couple of months ago, I watched the talented humourist and author, Sir Terry Pratchett give the Richard Dimbleby Lecture on TV. Or at least introduce himself with the expected humour and humility. Due to the constraints of his Alzheimers, he handed over delivery of his speech to Tony Robinson. Who better than Baldrick ? He did a great job. The title was “Shaking Hands with Death” and his theme was death with dignity.
Death is the last taboo in our society. People now freely discuss cancer these days, but it wasn’t always the case. When I was a child, cancer was a taboo subject. I remember the hushed conversations between my mother and her best friend, who in the early 1960s died of cancer in her late 20s, about what would happen to her children. Cancer was not named; it was the “C” word, and as Pratchett pointed out, obituaries always used to use the euphemism “died after a long illness”.
So now we can talk about cancer but we (largely) can’t talk about death; something that will happen to all of us. Am I morbid or obsessed with my own demise ? No. But I find I am unusual these days – many people I have cared about have died in my lifetime already. That is unusual these days. I have friends in their 50′s who have not yet had anyone close to them die. In my Grandma’s youth, death was a regular occurence and visible to all. The war, childbirth, front room wakes…. So I often avoid talking about death because it makes people uncomfortable. Yet the circle of life includes death; it’s the most natural thing in the world.
In childhood, you think you are invincible and that anyone over 20 is old. In your 20s, you know that you are going to die one day, but it seems so far away, too far off to bother about… In your 30s, your awareness of your mortality may sharpen, may give you the impetus to seize the moment, forge the business, the career, the artwork, have the children, create your legacy… or you may choose to prolong the carefree 20s spirit. But your 40s give you pause for thought, possible burnout or early mid-life crisis – no denying that time is marching on… And in your 50s, you know that your days are numbered.
For me it’s a reminder to appreciate and be grateful for each day. How many days do I have left though ? Thanks to Kevin Kelly and his link to the Countdown Clock and actuarial tables, I now know it’s estimated that I will die on Saturday 5 May 2040. Best make the most of it now then….