A Good Death

Fading hydrangea flower

Glenn Koller

October 18, 2015

A good death. A good death. To me, that sounds a bit oxymoronic – kinda like “a terrific IRS audit,” or “a great hole in the head.” Perhaps if I parse this out, it will bring clarity to what is meant by “a good death.”

I more than agree with Woody Allen who said that he doesn’t want to believe in reincarnation because he might come back as someone who has to sit through an ice show. Not only do I not subscribe to the idea of reincarnation, but I eschew the entire concept of an afterlife. So, for me, there is nothing good – or bad or indifferent – beyond the veil.

If there is no afterlife, then that leaves me with two remaining components of death – the life leading up to death, and the actual act of dying. I’ll first have a look at the act of dying as it might relate to having a good death.

Comedian Steven Wright chastises people who say things like: “she died suddenly.”  Steven contends that we all die suddenly – you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re dead. Although he’s trying to invoke humor, I actually agree.  I think death is an almost instantaneous transition. To make this transition “good,” most people hope for at least three things: that you experience it quickly (you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re dead), that you experience little or no pain, and, if you can arrange it, that you are asleep or unconscious when it befalls you.

I suspect that people who use the phrase “good death” are not intimating that those three components constitute a “good death” as they contend, mainly because there is little to nothing you can do to influence expedience, unawareness, or discomfort. So, if the phrase “good death” does not refer to what lies beyond the veil and it does not refer to the instantaneous transition, then it has to apply to the time – that is, life – preceding the transition.

I don’t know why, but when I think of or hear the phrase “a good death” I envision a Roman Empire soldier – I guess it’s the movies. To them, as I interpret it, a good death was to die in a battle that was in support of a cause in which they believed. I suspect that it’s still true today, but, fortunately, most of us are not afforded that opportunity.

Quite frankly, I’m not really convinced that the person doing the dying would routinely agree that it might be a good death.  Perception of a good death could mainly be in the eyes of those left behind. My father-in-law loved to hunt and died doing that. Family and friends found some degree of comfort knowing he died doing the thing he loved to do. It’s hard for me to believe that he, at the time of the heart attack, perceived his imminent demise more favorably because he was hunting.

Maybe it’s because my son and I spent so many years in Boy Scouts, but, to me, a “good death” has to do with being prepared. The dignified manner in which 91-year-old Jimmy Carter speaks about his demise comes to mind. I suspect he’s made peace with the fact of his mortality, believes he’s led a mainly exemplary life, and has addressed his family, financial, and other obligations to the best of his ability. He’s prepared – ergo, a “good death.”

Knowing me as I do, I’m acutely aware of the mistakes and less-than-proud moments of my life so far. If I use the preparedness definition and compare my life to the exemplary-life Jimmy Carter standard, I wonder if I’m qualified to have a good death? Is it too late for me to work on that?  Is it too late for you?

(Photo credit: Hydrangea by Takashi M.)