Sent to the publisher 24 October 2010:
The End – The human experience of death
by Bianca Nogrady
We sat around and on the bed, laughing and joking as if this was a typical family gathering. The shrunken form of our dying grandmother lay on the bed, breathing fast and shallow, wispy hair plastered to her skull with sweat, her once-bright eyes half closed and sunken in their sockets.
To some it might have seemed disrespectful to be treating her as part of the furniture as she took what were her very last breaths on this earth. But to us, it seemed almost normal that we should carry on being her boisterous, jovial grandchildren, filling her ears with the sounds of normality as she slipped away.
Looking back on that precious half hour as we sat with her, however, I have so many questions. Was she in pain? Could she hear us? Did she know we were there? Was she aware of what was happening to her? What was she experiencing as the spark of life that had sustained her for 87 years finally flickered out?
We know so much about birth – generations of women have shared their experiences with their sisters, daughters and grand-daughters, medicine has exhaustively explored and documented every possible angle of birth, and it is a joyous moment that is shared with friends and family.
But at the other end of a life, death is hidden, taboo, mysterious, fearful, rarely shared and often a lonely, dark book-end. Yet many who have been present at the death of a loved one talk of it as being a gift, a sense that they have taken part in a profound moment.
Death will come to all of us – it is one of few experiences that unites every single being on the planet. This book is an exploration of that experience, of that moment. It will look at the human experience of death from every angle – the spiritual, the historical, the physical, the metaphysical; from the perspective of those who have witnessed it, those who face it, and those who have somehow stepped back from it. It will explore every facet of that last moment but, like the event horizon of a black hole, death will always keep its most final secrets hidden from the living.
Market and audience
The End is ultimately a human interest story. It aims to answer many of the common questions that we all have about those final few moments, whether we are asking those questions merely from curiosity, from a need to prepare ourselves, or whether we seek to explain and understand a personal experience.
The End is an exploration of a universal human experience, told by those who have been touched by it in some way. While death is generally a sombre topic, I want The End to be an enjoyable, fascinating, funny, sentimental, poignant read – a book that makes people laugh and cry at the same time, and a book that gives people a different framework through which to view death instead of the fear and mystery that so often shrouds this incredibly important moment of life.
There are so many books written as guides for those facing death, facing the death of loved ones or dealing with the death of loved ones. Perhaps the most famous of these is “On Death and Dying” by Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, an authoritative philosophical exploration of the stages of dying, death and grief, but there are so many others that all attempt to give structure, meaning and support to those challenged by death.
There are books about dying, about grief, about funerals and about rituals. There is also no shortage of scholarly works examining death throughout history, and from different religious and cultural perspectives.
The End is not intended as a self-help book or guide for the dying, nor is it an academic study of the subject. It differs from all of these in that it is about the human experience of death from all these angles, but most importantly, from the human perspective and through human stories.
2. Death: before, during and after
What is death? The actual definition of death is surprisingly fluid, changing as medical technology changes. From medieval times, when plague victims were buried with a bell in case they weren’t quite dead, we now have technology that can revive people who have been, for all intents and purposes, dead for minutes and even an hour. For something as certain as death, we are remarkably uncertain about when someone is actually dead.
At the same time, medical research has enabled us to explore down to the molecular level the process of death. What actually happens to the human body as it approaches death, as we take our final breath, and in the minutes and hours after death?
What does death actually feel like? While we can never truly answer this question, we can get a sense of how the lead up to death feels from those who have had near-death experiences, who have faced death yet somehow survived.
- medical/scientific researchers who can talk about the scientific, biological side of death
- doctors working in palliative care/emergency departments around the world, talking about how they define and pronounce death, and situations where the line between alive and dead has blurred or shifted. Also explore how the medical community deals with death in different cultural settings
- People who have had near-death experiences
2. On the threshold
For many of us, death will come swiftly and unexpectedly, but some are given time to prepare for those final moments. How do we feel when we stare death in the face, knowing that in a matter of weeks or days, the life will leave our bodies? What do people facing death believe will happen in those final moments? How do we prepare to face death when we are given time to contemplate its arrival?
- people who are dying
- medical experts who work with the dying eg palliative care
- psychologists/counsellors/therapists who work with the dying
3. Faith and death
“A time to be born, and a time to die”. Every religion, faith or cult has something to say about death, some comfort to offer their believers. So what do the major (and some minor) religions have to say about those final moments? What do they believe happens to the body, mind and spirit at the moment of death and how do different religions mark the passage from life to death?
Faith can also provide enormous comfort to those facing death, whether it be by giving them a sense of their death being part of a bigger picture, or the promise of a glorious afterlife to look forward to. So what does faith give those whose are dying and what does their faith contribute to that journey?
- religious leaders/figures of authority
- people of faith who are facing death or have faced it
4. Death across cultures and ages
From the crude but clearly spiritual burials of the Neanderthals to the ritualistic death-bed ceremonies of various modern religions, death and death rites vary enormously across cultures and across history. The moment of death is marked by some cultures with loud, joyous celebrations to send soul from this world to the next in great style, while others treat this moment with great solemnity and sombre ritual.
Throughout history, the experience of death has changed dramatically. Death in Ancient Egypt was accompanied by great ritual (at least for those who were deemed important enough to warrant them) while at the height of the Black Plague, death was so commonplace and the necessity for rapid burial so urgent that people were often buried with a bell in case the proclamation of their death had been too hasty.
In modern times, medical technological advances have meant that the moment of death has become surrounded by clinical judgement and machines. And what about death on the battlefield – how has that changed over the years?
- Army chaplains/doctors
5. Being on the outside
Death is so often shrouded in secrecy, fear and mystery, yet many of those who have sat with loved ones as they died talk about it being a profound experience accompanied by intense, tumultuous and conflicted emotions. This chapter explores the experience of death from the perspective of those who witness it, and who are left behind. What is it really like to sit with someone and hold their hand as they take their last breaths? What are the thoughts, feelings and emotions of people who share in the death of a loved one?
From the stylised to the brutal, Hollywood has given us a million portrayals of death but what does death really look like?
- doctors and medical personnel, describing death from the perspective of the outside, and relatively detached, clinical observer
- People who have sat with loved ones as they died
- Spiritual and religious celebrants who participate in deathbed rites and rituals