Recently, I read Séamus O’Mahony’s occasionally grumpy, sometimes bleakly humorous and always thought-provoking book, The Way We Die Now. O’Mahony, a consultant physician in Cork University Hospital, is suspicious of the idea of the “good death”. It is not that he does not believe that it is possible. He provides several examples in his book. He is just suspicious of the idea that anyone can have a good death to order, much less that anyone can truly exert control over death. Life and death are just too messy for that.
He believes death has been overmedicalised. The rituals and beliefs that once “tamed” death have been replaced with frantic attempts to avoid it at all costs, often stemming from the patient’s family. O’Mahony’s verdict on the Irish is that we are “so good with the dead, not so good around the dying”.
As a doctor, he was delighted when Marie Fleming was denied the right to assisted suicide. In 30 years as a doctor, he has never met anyone that he felt he needed to assist with suicide. He points out that the media hailed her as “brave, courageous, clear-minded and an inspiration”.
However, as O’Mahony says, “the law is also there to protect the cowardly, the stupid, the unloved and the uninspiring”. In other words, Fleming’s dream of controlling death would have had major negative consequences for many vulnerable, sick, old people and the whole way in which medicine is practised.
O’Mahony says that her “suffering was conflated with moral infallibility: it became unacceptable to disagree with someone who was the victim of a progressive and incurable disease”. It is essential that people be sensitive both to those who suffer from such illnesses and those who are bereaved. But I believe that we have gone much, much further. The authority of personal experience now trumps everything else …