Brown relates to death to poetry, encourages people to talk about it

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Rebecca Brown, a thanatologist, speaks about the importance of “dying well” during the Interfaith Lecture Monday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Aging is a privilege. With that privilege is the inevitable fact of life: Everyone will die. But Rebecca Brown said not everyone will die well.

Brown, a thanatologist who worked with pre-medical students and youth with terminal illnesses, spoke about the poetry of death — if people talk about the subject and approach it the right way — and the “pornographic” ways it is portrayed in society in a 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. Her lecture, “Dying Well in a Death-Phobic Society,” began Week Nine’s theme, “From Here to Hereafter: Facing Death with Hope and Courage.”

“Dying is dying,” Brown said. “It is part of our human condition.”

Despite this statement, people seem unprepared for death and don’t know how to talk about the subject, she said.

This wasn’t always the case.

“For most of human history we did not have the option of repressing it. Death was part of life. Death was not hidden from anyone — not even the children,” she said. “The whole family would sit with the doctor at grandpa’s bed as he was dying. And yes, there were tears and sadness, but we tarried with grandpa as he died in his room with his picture, his memories and his loved ones.”

It was in the 1930s and 1940s that society began to hide death in hospitals, Brown said. In the 1950s, sociologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote an article about “the pornography of death,” which stemmed from the way society tried to repress the subject. It had to pop up somewhere else, he wrote, and contemporary society is filled with violent deaths and dramatizations in movies, videogames and TV shows. “South Park” even coined the term “murder porn,” Brown said.

“Like sexual pornography, we are seeing death, but in its most grotesque, distorted and irregular forms,” she said. “We must give death its natural face and befriend it.”

The way people interact with death also needs to change. It is not a confrontation. Brown said too many people speak about fighting death or beating it. It cannot be overcome so there is no need for “battle language.”

Life should not be extended past its normal expectancy, either. Brown said too many people are attempting to defy death and prolong life with modern medicine and science.

“We die so others may live. If we refuse to relinquish our spot on the Earth, we disrupt the balance of this ecosystem and that is not without consequences,” she said. “Preserving life at all costs is time-consuming, emotionally wasteful and expensive and financially draining.”

Brown said it also takes away the “end of life gifts” that death brings — awareness, reflection and spiritual healing.

The question becomes, “When is it permissible to die?”

“Our bodies wear out,” Brown said. “And, as they’re wearing out, they’re searching for a natural way to shut down.”

It is important to talk about death with family members in advance, so that, while it is happening, it can remain as personal as possible, she said. Doctors might keep the heart beating with a machine or the lungs inflated with a ventilator, but death should be on the person’s own terms.

“Too often, fear is informing family decisions,” she said. “Sometimes out of guilt, or because we think this is our last opportunity to show loyalty and love. … Have that talk so that end-of-life decisions do not exhaust your loved ones in this endless, painless volley of emotional ping-pong. It’s actually unkind not to have that conversation.”

It’s easier to enjoy the end of life if one accepts it, Brown said. Talking with family and saying no to “drugs and aggressive treatment plans” will allow people to stay at home, rather than in a hospital and enjoy time with family and friends.

Brown also suggested keeping a long-standing family doctor involved in end-of-life decisions, instead of relying on surgeons and specialists who aren’t personally invested in the patient.

Being able to make these choices allows for dignity in death. Brown said that holding onto a sense of self and keeping one’s voice become increasingly important as one faces death.

Death can also be a beautiful and strengthening experience, Brown said. She spoke of a couple who decided to turn down chemotherapy when the husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He lived the end of his life without doctor visits, and his wife took care of him until he passed.

Brown read the woman’s reflections after her husband’s death: “The intimacy of bathing him every day after the catheter routine — I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

She spoke of how, on the night of his death, the woman laid with him in bed, cuddling him as he passed.

“There is a poetry to this I think,” Brown said. “We are helpless at birth and we need others and there’s nothing humiliating about that, right? And when we are dying we need help again.”

In the last phase of life, medicine and science should not be a crutch, and while religious beliefs that try to define heaven and an afterlife give some hope, Brown said too often faith removes the wonder and mystery of death. This “literalism and a fundamentalism” tries to give a name to something unnameable, removing the transcendent power of faith.

“A chaplain is not always the right person at the end of life,” she said. “Some people do not connect with traditional end-of-life jargon.”

Wonder and humility are essentials for dying well, Brown said, and “it’s really nice to have company.”