Saturday, November 20, 2010

Do We Need Guidelines on How to Die?

During this month of November Catholics think of death and  pray for those who have died. The trees are shedding their leaves, and nature  goes to sleep, which makes thoughts of death come easier. The secular press does not spend much time reflecting on the meaning of death but the Chosun Ilbo has an interesting account of a book, "Dying in the Hospital."

Written by a Japanese doctor, the book chronicles his 16 years attending 300 persons who died in the hospital. It convinced him that it was not the place to spend one's last moments on earth and that when his time came, he would not spend it in a hospital. Although those dying in a hospital have access to all kinds of life-support equipment--to help them breathe and receive nourishment--their days are neither  living nor a dying. It is not dying as a human being and meeting death with dignity, so the doctor says.

He tells the story of a 40-year old man who, after he was told he had terminal cancer, left his hospital bed and went home to spend his last months with his family. This time with them was the  most important of his 40 years, he said, and the kind of message he wanted to leave behind for the family.

The columnist refers to a survey of 298 cancer patients who were receiving anti-cancer treatment six months before death. In Korea 95 percent of cancer patients would be receiving such treatment; in the United States, it would be only 33 percent. He believes the reason for this discrepancy is that Koreans have a strong attachment to life and the  denial of death is pervasive. When death comes suddenly into their life or the life of their loved ones, it is difficult to accept.

The column ends by mentioning that the Korean Institute of Death has published guideline material on how to prepare for death. It begins with instructions on preparing the last will and testament, how to inform others of one's impending death, how to improve the relationship with the doctor, and what the family needs to know. That we in this modern world need guidelines on  how to live, the columnist understands, but that  we need them for dying left him perturbed. However, in this world where extraordinary measures are often taken to live well, it is also important  to know how to die well.

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