In 2016 there is a national conversation (in Australia) about voluntary euthanasia, as some refer to it, or assisted suicide, another phrase for a voluntary end to ones life. I have listened to the Andrew Denton PodCast series “Better of Dead”. I was listening intently, hunched up and very much interested and fascinated by the journey the podcast took. This was a new dimension to death and I was eager to learn all I could. The campaign to change Australian legislation to make euthanasia, or the practice of choosing to end ones life, legal has been waged for two decades and a bit. It looks like 2016 would be a significant milestone in the campaign. I would hear something similar voiced by the people and campaigners I spoke with. Inspired by the campaign I found myself in Portland, Oregon, to see and hear for myself how a place that has legalised assisted suicide imagines the rights of humans. A full 8 months later reflecting upon my journey I realise this campaign has given me a deeper understanding of the collective navigation towards a shared understanding of death.
For we don’t understand death. We ignore it. We shush people who raise the topic. We would rather death was not brought into the conversation. We are happy for death to be dealt with by experts in technical environments, such as hospitals and funeral parlours. The contemporary period is defined by the removal of death from our lives. Death has become hidden, and unfamiliar. If life is sacred, then death is profane.
Death however happens to us. It exists always as a future event in each individual person’s life. Death therefore ought to be planned for and prepared for. Within the continuum of death Voluntary Euthanasia constitutes one component; the death of a legal entity, a citizen, a tax payer and a law abiding individual. While the material apparatus and practice of taking one’s life is within the ability of an individual the law treats this as a form of crime – the taking of life is a crime. However in exceptional circumstances, such as extreme pain and suffering, it ought to be permissible for society to permit the individual to choose a form of exit and end to the pain and suffering. Those objecting to a law permitting voluntary euthanasia point to the possibility of the exploitation of this option and use the argument of the ‘slippery slope’. The ability of the state to allow for the voluntary Legal Death of a citizen is thus not a straight forward discussion in Australia.
Another component of the continuum of death is what is being referred to as ‘good death’. Chiefly a terminology popular within ‘end of life’ choices within the medical, hospital, ecosystem this phrase refers to the notion that death is largely cast in medical terms. Medical death also largely occurs in hospital where contemporary medicine is confronting the impacts of its practice of aggressively attacking the body to prolong life. Advocates raising the notion of good life are campaigning for doctors, patients and family to have a conversation before undertaking aggressive interventions that would not significantly prolong life but could instead render the person unable to lead a life outside of hospital, fed through tubes and connected to life support apparatus. The notion of good death is thus a way to reimagine the medical death of the person.
Framing the notions of Legal and Medical Death allows me to frame the category of the death of the person: where the death is the end of the social individual, the cultural practice of life. Thus in an individual’s death many things come to an end: the legal entity, the functioning body and the performing individual in society.
In coming to the construction of a location for a project involving students and colleagues I arrived then at the lack and thus the need that we have in society to reframe death. As designers we can do something about a lack – we can populate it with practice, services, products and a discourse. Developing a cultural discourse, we can invite people to enter into an engagement with the notions of death in cultural ways; with amusement, awe and laughter.
Death is a space that is the last event in the journey of life. It then has its own rites of passage, and traditional cultures have many sophisticated, curious and wonderful ways to engage with death. Death thus ought to be designed. Death as this designed practice ought to be framed as a discourse of desirable ways to proceed towards death and constitute the universe of possibilities to reimagine ways of dying. The celebration surrounding the last phase of a life can be so much more than a consumption event, such as the bucket list. It can be the end of consumption too and a repudiation of the mean and the meaningless in the shallows of life.
The proscription of death, and the consignment of the journey towards death, the experience of dying, to a technical facility such as the hospital, a body repair shop, robs society of its past, its ability to enrich social discourse and its ability to build resilience. The banishment of dying from our homes has some horrific consequences in that most people die unhappy and away from their loves ones. People die in horrible ways. We can change this.
(Knight Meets Death, in Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman)
The End studio took a group of design students and teachers on a journey to dismantle death and to put it back together in interesting ways. The goal in this enterprise has always been to be able to take the design outcomes to others who deal with people and families navigating mortality and death. It had been possible of us to construct the studio so that it was embedded within the medical facilities to include experts who deal with keeping people alive. We chose to stay outside of this ecosystem – for a while – so we could create a space that was not about life, where death is the unacceptable, but about dying as a desirable and normal practice.
We constructed dying as a long period. Not just the moments, days and weeks before death and after death. But as a phase that occurs after the end of the working life. So in our view dying commences when you stop working and may extend to decades. Dying in this ways is reframed as something that can be made meaningful and full, rather than empty. We imagine we can speak about death not just with those dying soon, but also with people, such as children, who will die eventually. We can speak of dying as a place where we do things differently, to imagine our lives in ways different from the way we imagined it before we entered the world of work. We can recast dying as the place where we savour. Where we pause to taste, smell and touch. Where we don’t take, but give. Its the location of the poetic phase of our lives.
To enrich ways of dealing with this tremendously important aspect of being alive we imagine we focus not about how we look but upon how funny we are. The attractive person is one who is generous, kind and amusing. We become children and in this we close the loop. Gently and with grace.
We make time to be with a dying person in our homes. We hold them, get them to hold our beer as we munch the pizza, stroke their skin and make them normal. We will have seen many dead people and would be richer for it.
Acknowledging others who came along on this journey.
- Haley West: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-28/hearse-stolen-with-body-inside-nsw-blue-mountains/5924708
- Libby Molony: http://www.theswitchreport.com.au/people/natural-approach-death-interview-libby-moloney-natural-grace/
- Rebecca Bartel: http://www.achr.org.au
- Tony Yap: http://www.tonyyapcompany.com
- Swathi Madike
- Ian Gray: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/law-order/retiring-coroner-ian-gray-says-victorian-coroners-court-should-be-more-transparent/news-story/9939a32cc1d788576533562d02d471e1