Old Age, Death and Last Rights by Trevor Plumbly
How Old is Old?
I learned today that in Japan there’s a man who’s 116 years old and this provoked a bit of reflective thinking. I reckon getting to 80 is not a bad innings. Let’s face it; if you haven’t done all you want to in that time you can’t have been trying hard enough. But assuming I make it to 80, if I thought for one moment I had another 36 years to go, I’d have to do some serious thinking. It’s funny really how such mildly interesting snippets of news can sometimes lead us to thoughts we normally would prefer to avoid. Most of us reflect on our mortality at some stage, increasingly so as we get older; some take the religious route while others accept that a life lived is just that. I’m always reluctant to enter religious debates, I’m a sort of patchwork believer and while I accept the existence of a superior being, I’m not quite sure whereabouts to go to seek enlightenment or absolution. I feel just as much at home praying alongside Catholics and Jews as I do with Anglicans, but I find it hard to accept that the death of the young and innocent is part of some sort of divine plan.
Thoughts of Death
For that reason, I don’t really feel qualified or convinced enough to comment on the possibility of an afterlife, plus the fact that the current one seems to take up quite enough of my thought processes. When I think of my own death, my concerns are more worldly than heavenly; I mean, there’s a fair chance that it’s not going to be a pleasant experience for all involved. ‘Going gently into that good night’ sounds poetically pleasant, but I suspect that some form of pharmaceutical help is needed to achieve it in a lot of cases. I feel quite sure that this sort of assistance has been quietly practised and accepted for years before euthanasia was openly discussed, and in some enlightened countries accepted into law. Suddenly the clergy decided that living bodies were as much their concern as spiritual souls. Theologians all entered the fray and I decided that regardless of previous resolutions I should at least put my view.
Euthanasia – a Last Right
I firmly believe that anybody experiencing an undignified and painful passage to death should have the right to a quick and peaceful end. I don’t believe that the Hippocratic promise of ‘Do no harm’ extends to prolonged, debilitating fatal illness. Doing little or nothing to end the pain of the victim and family is in itself inflicting harm. The law fares no better in terms of liberated thought; its attitude to euthanasia is based on the ancient attitude to suicide: if the Bible says its wrong then it should be illegal. Surely we’ve grown beyond basing our laws on ancient religious strictures? Let’s not forget that a heck of a lot of people have died defending or enforcing their particular God’s point of view over the years, while others have been exiled from the church and publicly shamed for their sexual preferences. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the medical and legal professions as well as the clergy, but all three show a reluctance to embrace or accept new concepts. Pain and suffering aren’t regarded as biblical or heroic virtues anymore; in the 21st Century they should be seen for what they are, unpleasant and unnecessary. As I said, 80 is a good innings. If I make it, fine, if I ‘go gently into that good night’, great! But if I’m practically immobile and just waiting, please spare me the pity, the homilies and the religious remonstrations. Just give me the means to make a peaceful, dignified exit.