The recent passing of South African novelist Andre Brink was a “death in transit”, like historian Jeff Guy’s late last year. Brink’s passing at 79 occurred on a flight from Amsterdam to his hometown of Cape Town. Guy died at 74 on a bus to catch his flight from London to his hometown of Durban. In an obituary about Professor Guy, fellow South African historian Colin Bundy quoted a friend’s description of his passing at Heathrow as “a very Jeff way to go – struck down in the stride of life”.
Both Brink and Guy were about story, fictional and historical, and both died with a narrative. Both professors travelled from Africa to Europe to be honoured and give talks. Both reportedly impressed their audiences. Brink spoke in French in accepting his honorary doctorate from Belgium’s Francophone Catholic University of Louvain. Guy’s Cambridge University lecture drew praise for what Professor Bundy called his “evident zest for life and intellectual vigour”. Neither made it back home afterwards.
I have been reflecting on the coincidentally similar deaths “on the go” of these two top septuagenarian South Africans. Some might draw the conclusion that older people should quit international travel. Others could argue that our bodies can give up at any time or place.
Dying en route to or from a distant destination is not unusual in our mobile society. Websites on international travel offer advice about this eventuality. Undertakers have standard procedures to follow when a person dies on the road.
As an expert on Zulu history, Professor Guy would have known of the cultural practice when a loved one dies away from home. The family takes a branch of an indigenous tree and travels to the place where the death took place. There the deceased’s spirit is called and taken back to the family homestead.
These musings about ways of dying are especially relevant in light of a recent controversy sparked by the former editor of the British Medical Journal, who argued that “cancer is the best death”.
“You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion. This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky.”
– Dr Richard Smith, British Medical Journal blog, 31 December 2014
Such treatment can bring relief in the final days, but many have taken issue with his assertion that a cancer death is “only unpleasant in the last few weeks”. Indeed the word “unpleasant” seems hopelessly out of place. Too many of us have seen too many painful and agonising deaths from cancer to buy the notion that it brings a end that is somehow good or better than other endings.
“Talk of good, better and best deaths is another manifestation of this foolish state of delusion, a contemporary attempt to reduce our inevitable demise into something as facile as a shopping list of options. It’s not even as if most of us, when the moment comes, will have any choice in the matter.”
People like that journalist, who saw his mother die from cancer, are especially outraged at Dr Smith’s suggestion that cancer research funding should be cut.
“Stay away from overambitious oncologists, and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death. If you want to die suddenly, live every day as your last, making sure that all important relationships are in good shape, your affairs are in order, and instructions for your funeral neatly typed and in a top draw—or perhaps better on Facebook.”
– Dr Smith’s controversial blog post
This whole debate can seem a bit childish, and reminiscent of the prayer that many of us were taught to recite as children: “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” As if dying in your sleep is always a poignant, unmessy, movie-like experience.
I wondered what’s behind Dr Smith’s unpopular views on death and found this clue: he was a TV doctor, for the BBC and other channels. So voxpops seem to have informed his opinions.
“I often ask audiences how they want to die, and most people chose sudden death. That may be okay for you, I say, but it may be very tough on those around you, particularly if you leave an important relationship wounded and unhealed.”
– Dr Smith
There are certainly holes in that argument. For starters, you don’t need to be on your deathbed to think of putting your affairs in order and healing broken relationships. I believe that Dr Smith is misguided because of the guide he chose: the Spanish-Mexican filmmaker who did a lot of thinking about death, Luis Bunuel.
“I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of dying alone in a hotel room, with my bags open and a shooting script on the night table. I must know whose fingers will close my eyes.”
– Luis Bunuel, quoted by Carlos Fuetes in The Discreet Charm of Luis Bunuel, New York Times magazine, 11 March 1973
To ensure that he would know those fingers that closed his eyes on his demise, the famous director stopped travelling the world and stayed home for his final months before dying of cancer at 83. Professors Brink and Guy did otherwise, but it’s not for that TV doctor to say who’s right or wrong. No one has control over how they’re going to die, but they certainly can decide how they prefer to live. Until the end…
Regardless of all of the above, the debate over the best ways of dying continues.
“You can see from the example of Richard Smith, the cancer lover, that not all experts will agree about this stuff, but in sudden cardiac arrest during sleep I think I have my answer. I know the fluttering sensation of a heart suddenly going off beat all too well. It’s a weird feeling, but if that’s really what sudden cardiac arrest feels like—and firsthand accounts describe them as painless—having one wouldn’t wake me up. If that struck in the middle of the night, and the lights just never turned back on, I don’t think there’s a better way to go than that. That or the guillotine.”
1. Drowning in a huge tub of orange jello
2. Drowning in a huge tub of hot chocolate
3. Drowning in a huge tub of Guinness
4. Suffocating in a huge tub of gummy bears
5. Dying in my sleep
– Experience Project, social networking site