[ed. Yes. Imagine if there were more research devoted to promoting a good, natural death (free of invasive technologies) that makes succumbing to the inevitable a more gentle, pain-free process. I don't fear death as much as I fear dying (... insert Woody Allen joke here).]
There was so much beauty to be found in the infinitesimal push and pull between life and death those slides depicted that I would fantasize about having them framed and put up in my house. Yet the more I studied those cells, the more I realized that they might have the answers to one of the most difficult subjects of our time.
Throughout our history, particularly recently, the human race has looked far and wide to answer a complex question — what is a good death? With so many life-sustaining technologies now able to keep us alive almost indefinitely, many believe that a “natural” death is a good one. With technology now invading almost every aspect of our lives, the desire for a natural death experience mirrors trends noted in how we wish to experience birth, travel and food these days.
When we picture a natural death, we conjure a man or woman lying in bed at home surrounded by loved ones. Taking one’s last breath in one’s own bed, a sight ubiquitous in literature, was the modus operandi for death in ancient times. In the book “Western Attitudes Toward Death,” Philippe Ariès wrote that the deathbed scene was “organized by the dying person himself, who presided over it and knew its protocol” and that it was a public ceremony at which “it was essential that parents, friends and neighbors be present.” While such resplendent representations of death continue to be pervasive in both modern literature and pop culture, they are mostly fiction at best.
This vision of a natural death, however, is limited since it represents how we used to die before the development of modern resuscitative technologies and is merely a reflection of the social and scientific context of the time that death took place in. The desire for “natural” in almost every aspect of modern life represents a revolt against technology — when people say they want a natural death, they are alluding to the end’s being as technology-free as possible. Physicians too use this vocabulary, and frequently when they want to intimate to a family that more medical treatment may be futile, they encourage families to “let nature take its course.”
Yet, defining death by how medically involved it is might be shortsighted. The reason there are no life-sustaining devices in our romantic musings of death is that there just weren’t any available. Furthermore, our narratives of medical technology are derived largely from the outcomes they achieve. When death is unexpectedly averted through the use of drugs, devices or procedures, technology is considered miraculous; when death occurs regardless, its application is considered undignified. Therefore, defining a natural death is important because it forms the basis of what most people will thus consider a good death.
Perhaps we need to observe something even more elemental to understand what death is like when it is stripped bare of social context. Perhaps the answer to what can be considered a truly natural death can be found in the very cells that form the building blocks of all living things, humans included.
by Haider Javed Warraich, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Corbis, via Getty Images