Having written many columns and blog posts on death and dying, the turning of the calendar year brings on the desire to reflect on the current landscape. What strikes me most since I first became interested in the subject is that two contrapuntal trends, of acceptance and denial have emerged.
“If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions—from surgeons to nursing homes—ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits.”
Atul Gawande, "Being Mortal"
Amid the myriad conversations and services that have opened up about death is a fresh appreciation for accepting death's inevitability. With that has come a new understanding of compassionate palliative care and alternatives to the traditional methods of funerals and burials.
Web sites like The Conversation Project (theconversationproject.org) and movements like Death Cafes (deathcafe.com) have helped us open up about one of the least discussed but most essential of human conditions. These conversations have begun to help us come to grips with the realities of death and the sometimes agonizing approach to the end. Even Ted Talks have started talking about death (here is a list of 10). Books like Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal" have provided searing insights into elder care and how to make living to the end a better experience. And mortician Caitlin Doughty (orderofthegooddeath.com/) can even bring enough insight and humor to the subject to make death seem almost...well, fun!
"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." - Benjamin Franklin
The other trend that has emerged, most visibly in just the last few years, has been renewed efforts to extend life well beyond the current expectancy or to defeat death altogether. While many doctors and researchers are doing amazing work in finding ways to overcome specific diseases, these death denying efforts hope to leap frog over all that one disease at a time effort. These efforts include everything from 3D printed organs, to fully replacing the mortal body with an indestructible android one. Others are looking at genetic engineering to overcome the body's built in aging process.
Not surprisingly much of the impetus for these efforts is coming from technology born billionaires such as the founders of Google and Facebook. What better way to spend some of that money than to find a way to cure death itself?
If they succeed, perhaps Mr. Franklin's expression will have to be edited to just "...taxes." No one will defeat those.