Dying in the Twenty-First Century by Lydia Dugdale
Best for: Philosophers who will have a chance to discuss the contents.
In a nutshell: Bioethicist and doctor compiles essays addressing how we die and if there is a way to revive the art of dying well.
Line that sticks with me: “We can’t talk about the art of dying without first accepting that we will die.” (p 174)
Why I chose it: A lot of folks who are dear to people who are dear to me have died over these past 18 months, so I decided to get philosophical on it and picked this out.
Review: This collection of essays seeks to answer the question of what role bioethics has in helping people ‘die well.’ This doesn’t mean people dying in a way that is convenient for others, but in a way that allows someone to make some sense of peace with the reality of their death and the life they have lived.
Some of the essays look at how death has been handled in the past, with ceremony and ritual. We still see some of that today, especially after the fact, with certain religious funeral services. But how much of what death means today involves things other than ‘extraordinary measures’ in a hospital room? One of the essays explores the concept of hospice and palliative care, examining whether the way it is practiced now allows people to be as present as they would like to be as they experience the end of their life.
Other topics explored are how far we should be going to extend lives. Just because a life can be extended, should it be? One author specifically argues that we shouldn’t require people to live beyond what they could have expected before medical technology took off in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s interesting to contemplate for sure.
One essay that the editor chose to include frustrated me to no end, as it took the position that the Catholic hospitals and health care practices are the best for compassionate care while examining the issue of end-of-life-care. I live in a state where many private hospitals are being purchased by Catholic ones, and these facilities have been shown to repeatedly cross the line when it comes to making the ‘death with dignity’ options known to their patients, not to mention the horror stories of women denied proper reproductive health care because abortion. I fully recognize the very important role that religion plays in death for so many people, so I’m not suggesting that the Catholic piece is what made this a bad essay; it was jut so ironically ignorant that I remain baffled at its inclusion in an otherwise fin collection.
If you are interested in this topic, I think this is a fine book to read. However, I would urge you to find a fellow reader so that you have someone to talk about each essay with. Some works can be fully absorbed and process internally (although you might want to tell the world about it, you don’t need to in order to really understand it); this book requires some internal and external reflection to really get the most from it.