COMMUNITY | How do we die in this city?

Posted on 11/02/2010

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This week I was prompted to consider how we die in this (or any) city. The prompt came from a snippet from Charles Leadbeater who was addressing the School of Life (UK). The following text popped up on my facebook feed: “Leadbeater invited us to consider that a good old age and ultimately, a good death, can give us valuable insights about how we can live better lives. While the values of youth are about possession, consumption, expression and individuality, the values that underpin dignity in age and death are about relationships, connectedness, sharing and participation – far more powerful drivers for social change.”

Does it necessarily follow that if we live well then we die well? Can we plan for a good death? It caused me to consider the deaths of my family members and consider whether they died well. I am presuming not given the circumstances of their living. What does death evoke as a design or planning task? Some years ago I was working in a hospital and it was revealed that in the design and construction of the hospital there was no direct access to the morgue. The dead had to be transported through the most public part of the hospital – the foyer. It would make most recoil rather than reach out. A colleague tells me that there is nowhere in the city to have  funeral and the dead are far removed. As the earth and flames consume the bodies of our dead, are we assured that they have died well? Has the city equipped us with what we need as the living to lay our loved ones to rest? It makes me wonder about dignity and compassion, about community and grief in the city as that most human, even sacred, of environments albeit at times inhumane. I think about those who have died of drug overdoses or AIDS related illnesses, somehow cast adrift in the city.

Alphonso Lingis writes, “we know ourselves in our mortality”. Death is meaningful. My memories of some of my relatives includes memories their deaths, witnessing their still bodies in white hospital beds. It’s impolite to stare at the living, but the dead – you can really study the dead and marvel at the grandiosity. I was once asked to undertake a writer’s residency in a palliative care unit and I was afraid that I might drown in grief (the residency didn’t happen due to some bureaucratic issues). While some take comfort in the soul embarking on a journey into the afterlife, the body’s journey is furtive and secretive, as if concealing a horrible truth. For Lingis, there is a community of those with nothing in common – an interruption of the rational community – a community without community. He proposes that “one enters into community not by affirming oneself and one’s forces but by exposing oneself to expenditure at a loss, to sacrifice. Community forms a movement by which one exposes oneself to the other, to forces and powers outside oneself, to death and to the others who die.” Like other theorists of community, death is considered integral to ‘being-together’, as that which we have in common in a sea of differences.

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