Death isn’t a date to put in your diary
21 August 2007
For a few of us, the description of Lord Deedes’s final hours and days, affectionately described in the press, will have made rather chilling reading. He “bravely struggled to write his last column as he lay on his death bed”, reported the Sunday Telegraph. “Despite being desperately ill, bedridden and 94 years old, Lord Deedes – Bill Deedes to everyone who knew him – was halfway through his weekly article on Wednesday when he became too weak to continue.” He died two days later, on the day his column had been due to appear.
It was wildly, heroically professional, of course, but some may wonder whether, after nine decades of an extraordinary life, Deedes was right to spend his last few ounces of energy squeezing out one final opinion, worrying whether his opening paragraph was snappy enough, checking the word count on his laptop. As what Henry James called “the distinguished thing” approached, there were surely more important last thoughts than whether he would manage to file his copy on time.
It would be good to think that the subject of that unfinished column might have been Dawn French and her rather different attitude to death. The comedienne, who hitherto had always seemed a rather jolly person, has publicly announced that she is off to Cornwall to die. She was not ill, she explained, and was not yet 50, but she had always known that she was destined to die young. So she is moving to Cornwall where she will wait to depart “slowly and nicely, in great surroundings, with my family”.
It is a morbid subject, how best to approach the final curtain, but August is perhaps the perfect time to consider it. Holidays can often seem like a dress rehearsal for death, with too much time for thought, the sometimes oppressive presence of the family around you and, ahead, long stretches of nothingness. French and Deedes, an odd couple if ever there was one, present in extreme forms the options open to all of us: to prepare well in advance for a dignified, slow fade like Dawn or, in the manner of Bill, to stay on the treadmill of life and work until death knocks you off.
In both cases, an element of illusion is at work. Deedes behaved to the end as if mortality would not get the better of him – rather than admitting that the ultimate deadline was approaching, he concentrated on that imposed by his paper. Too tired to finish his column on the Wednesday, he was convinced that he would be able to complete it the next day.
Dawn French’s fantasy is more romantic. The idea of a good death is what attracts her – birds singing outside the window, the sound of waves crashing in the distance, and smiling, loving family faces around the bed. In order not to be caught short, she has decided to start her preparations early, choosing to ignore the crucial fact that few deaths are tidy or dignified. Leaving life tends to be as shambolic and unsatisfactory as leaving a job: there are always loose ends, uncompleted tasks, relationships which will never be resolved, a nagging sense of incompletion.
Would it be unkind to suggest that, at least on the face of it, there is something faintly egocentric about a woman in her forties announcing that she is preparing to die, like an actress about to make a show-stopping exit? It is better, surely, to remain in denial even at 94, to keep on working, writing and living until that moment when, suddenly and irritatingly, someone turns the lights out.
Lucy’s bear essentials
Stripping off in public has become a simple and effective form of protest. In the Alps this week, 600 people have gone naked to point out that the glaciers are melting. In America, there has been an in-the-buff demo on behalf of chickens allegedly abused by the KFC chain. Here, Lucy Davis, left, star of The Office, has posed with only a teddy bear as cover, in order to protest against the use of the fur of Canadian black bears on the bearskin hats of guards regiments. The naked Davis is right. It is anachronistic that, for the sake of ceremony and tradition, a black bear is killed for every guardsman’s hat. It is time an alternative was found to this silly item of uniform which makes the killing of wild animals respectable.
As someone whose great uncle was killed by pet lions, I feel especially for the woman in Queensland who has just been crushed to death by a sexually excited camel.
Just as Uncle Terence’s game with the adolescent lions got unexpectedly out of control, so the Australian woman had virtually no warning that her camel, which she had been given as a 60th birthday present in March, was in a dangerous state of arousal. It had, a local policeman admitted, “a bit of a habit” with the family goat, “knocking it over and sort of straddling it and laying on top of it”. Rejected by the goat, the camel turned on its owner.
The tragedy on these occasions is that the bizarre manner of a person’s death can be the defining characteristic of how they are remembered. No one has been able to tell me anything about my great uncle beyond his unexpected end.
There is a danger that this luckless woman will forever be associated with a humping camel.