The End: How Would You Choose To Die?

How do you want to die? It’s not a cheerful or a very welcome question, but it’s the one we’ll all have to ask one day. How would you want it to happen – quietly, violently, quickly, slowly? Should it be philosophical or action-packed; unashamedly secular or swathed in religious observance; done by your own hand or with the help of another? Should it be in private or in public?

"I want death to find me planting my cabbages," wrote the French savant Michel de Montaigne, and there’s much to be said for the pottering-in-the-garden option, the fate that extinguishes Don Corleone in The Godfather as he sprays his tomato plants and tries to frighten his grandson with vampire teeth made from orange peel. I think we can agree that his was a better death than those suffered by his many victims, shot, stabbed or garrotted in cold blood. But would we really want the Don Vito heart-attack and the nasty moment of consciousness telling you, inarguably, that it’s all over? Wouldn’t it be better to die in your sleep, never knowing your spirit had packed up and fled while you were suspended in dreamland?

Then again, if you knew nothing about it at all, would you miss an important life-experience: the final stocktaking, the profit-and-loss account of how you lived, the counting of blessings, the regrets (you’ll have a few) for transgressions you can’t now undo?

Death is preying on our minds because of the Jade Goody total-surveillance project. Other cancer victims (mostly journalists who treated death as a subject like any other — John Diamond, Ruth Picardie) have minutely notated their path to the grave for the edification of newspaper readers. But Goody’s decision to let a film crew follow her around during her last few weeks, recording her gradual decline in return for money, is unprecedented. So is the concept of a magazine buying the rights to someone’s death, after already bidding for the rights to the wedding and first-baby pictures.

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April 8, 2009