The End: The Human Experience of Death

One of the most common symptoms of a phobia or very strong fear can be a latent fascination with the subject. If you’re terrified of snakes, for instance, you’ve probably taken enough notice about the conventional wisdom surrounding them to know their bodies feel leathery rather than slimy, as many people think.

Death is one of the most widespread and pervasive fears the human race shares. We know we’ll have to explain it to a young child regarding a pet or grandparent (or worse) some time, and we know we’ll meet our own one day.

So a fear of death can lead to a hunger for information about every physical, philosophical, spiritual and familial dimensions there is to consider, and that seems to be exactly the book science reporter Nogrady has written, a sort of Everything You Wanted To Know About Death But Were Afraid To Ask primer.

The End begins with a fascinating look at how medical and scientific advancement has changed our understanding of death. In the pre-industrial age, whatever was going to do you in tended to do so fairly quickly in the face of comparatively primitive treatment. Today it’s possible to keep the brain alive while everything else in the body has essentially died, and in some cases doctors have restored life completely following an apparently total bodily shutdown.

How, as The End asks, does that affect our view of and relationship to death, when we can look closer at it than ever before? As one of the medical contributors points out, modern medical science shows us death often isn’t the flicking of a switch but a gradual trip between two states.

In fact, as Nogrady contends, it’s medical science that’s given death its modern air of taboo, one society used to reserve for sex. In today’s world of technological wonder, we tend to believe human ingenuity and modern health can fix anything – almost as if by working out and eating right, we’ve earned the right to live forever.

But we all know the urban myth of the diet-mad fitness fanatic who drops dead of a heart attack aged 30. No matter how wondrous our medicine, we’re essentially born dying, pre-programmed with some fault that will manifest to kill us one day, even if it’s the inevitable genetic damage wrought over our cells by time.

The question mark over death because of our understanding of and relative control over it (more than we’ve ever had before in the age of the respirator and defibrillator) also leads to a host of legal issues, something Nogrady doesn’t think we can ignore.

When, for instance, is a loved one ‘dead enough’ for us to switch off life support? And in the case of assisted suicide (not only legal but highly regulated in Switzerland), someone drinking a lethal cocktail becomes a very different legal proposition when someone else passes them the cup.

The book gradually becomes more spiritual, ending in a chapter called Death and Belief. It’s just as at home as the medical terminology in the first half, because it’s when faced with death in any form that our beliefs are usually bought into the sharpest relief.

Nogrady relates heart-warming stories of ailing patients at home in bed, family crowded around telling stories, laughing and crying together the way we all hope we’ll go. She highlights the compelling recent change in thinking about hospital intensive care wards. Collected under the somewhat mystifying title ‘good death’, there’s a movement to design the best possible circumstances of our passing that’s about familiar surroundings, loved ones, and even a sense of expectation, almost a countdown when we can control or expect death’s approach to the extent modern medicine allows.

Nogrady talks to a lot of doctors, hospice carers and even a hospital chaplain, as well as a host of people who’ve lost family members and even some who say they’ve been to the other side, either in a classic near death experience scenario or a more mundane sense of having re-awoken back to life.

It’s the latter that provide what may be The End’s most fascinating reading – the actual experience of death, something we know surprisingly little about unless we’ve experienced or seen it. They knew much more about what death looked like and how to deal with it in ages past when it was so widespread and visible, but today death is as welcome as religion or politics around the dinner table.

As The End explains in its many accounts, there’s little else in life we’ll all go through but which is so individual. For many, this will be an urgently needed read – after all, dragging our fears into the light equips us to deal with them much better.