'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
Here’s a paradox. The inhabitants of Western nations in the early twenty-first century have unparalleled access to developments which might, at first glance, appear to make a good modern death available to many more people. Western biomedicine can deploy drugs and techniques to prolong life, to mitigate the effects of violent trauma and chronic illness, and to ameliorate much physical pain. An entire professional sector exists to arrange funeral rites and the respectful, hygienic treatment of the dead body. Western states have evolved a legal framework to facilitate the (relatively) smooth transfer of possessions, rights and responsibilities from the dead to the living. And Western citizens have never been more free, indeed more encouraged, to discuss their personal feelings around death, dying and grief. Yet much of what is said expresses a Larkin-esque dissatisfaction with the treatment – particularly the medical treatment – of the dying and the dead, a sense of alienation, loneliness and fear untempered by any kind of consolation in this world or any other.
We need, as Russell Hoban wrote, to make friends again with death, and the new fifth edition of the Natural Death Handbook is a handsome gesture of friendship. This slip-cased set makes a case for ‘plac[ing] death back where it should be, right at the centre of our culture and society’. Overseen by Ru Callender of the Natural Death Centre, the handbook itself sets out, in plain, honest and compassionate terms, ‘what to do’ when faced with the practical, emotional and spiritual demands of a death in your life. Ru’s colleagues have also compiled a directory of natural death burial grounds, recommended funeral directors, and makers of coffins and urns. And a third volume contains essays and reflections by thinkers, artists and academics from Bill Drummond to Maggi Hambling, exploring the various ways in which the ‘good death’ and the ‘natural death’ intersect. (Here I must declare an interest, as this volume also includes my own contribution, a short essay on the history of modern attitudes to death.) We’re launching the book in fine style at Conway Hall in July, and will (I hope) be setting up more events in association with Wellcome Collection’s autumn exhibition on death.
This is a necessary book, but also a beautiful one, with illustrations by Ali Hutchinson of Deer Wolf Wolf, and a typically elegant and understated production by Strange Attractor Press. Reading it in full for the first time moved me to tears, and to a profound and new-found respect for those who, like Ru and many of his contributors, choose to spend their lives in the company of this fell sergeant.