The brave thing now: don’t write about your death

In the age of social media, ‘breaking the final taboo’ is becoming de rigueur. But death is taboo for good reason

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

Not content with Facebooking our every foible, Instagramming the births of our children and live-tweeting our daily lives, more and more of us are now making a public spectacle of dying. We’re inviting strangers not merely to ‘like’ expertly filtered photos of our breakfasts, but to admire the way we peg out. Nothing better captures the death of privacy than this publicisation of death.

It began with the literary set. It’s a rare writer these days diagnosed with a terminal illness who doesn’t get a book out of it. Jenny Diski is the latest public dyer. She’s giving readers of the London Review of Books a blow-by-blow account of her death by lung cancer, covering everything from the diagnosis to her chemo sessions. It’s moving and sometimes gripping, but it feels wrong.

To draw back the curtain on a woman’s death scene and watch her skin turn ‘deep red with flaky patches’ — shouldn’t that be for friends and family, not for strangers? Even Diski seems to have doubts. ‘Another fucking cancer column’ is how she refers to it. She follows on from Christopher Hitchens, usually the scourge of fashionable hoohah, and Iain Banks, who set up a website where fans could read updates on his cancer and even sign a guestbook: a kind of pre-death condolence book which soon filled up with mawkish expressions of sorrow. On the site, Banks’s wife was referred to as his ‘widow-in-waiting’.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, John Diamond’s cancer column in the Times was widely praised and eventually turned into a play: A Lump in My Throat. Ruth Picardie’s cancer column for the Observer — six pieces in which she graphically detailed her decline — became a bestselling book: Before I Say Goodbye. The actress Sheridan Smith has just appeared in a BBC Sunday-night adaptation of The C Word, the memoir of Lisa Lynch, who died from breast cancer in 2013.

Dying is now such a major publishing sell that it can bring a writer the kind of fame he or she only dreamt of when healthy. The Guardian drily noted this in its obit for Diamond: ‘It was a horrible irony that the illness that eventually ended [his] life was also, professionally, the making of him.’ Or consider this desperately sad headline to a blog in the San Francisco Chronicle, written by a young woman who died from skin cancer in 2010: ‘Cancer. Despair. And now, a blog.’

When Kate Granger, a young British doctor, was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, she promised to live-tweet her death. Her number of Twitter followers exploded into the tens of thousands. Were they sympathisers or ghouls? Granger used the hashtag #deathbedlive, which somehow says it all.

In one of her ‘fucking cancer columns’, Diski said: ‘I have no choice but to perform and to be embarrassed to death.’ But is this really true? And where does this compulsion to ‘perform’ come from? I think, in part, it’s peer pressure. It’s so entrenched now that we must ‘share’ everything that to refuse to offer up your misery for the entertainment of strangers is to be considered weird. A whole subsection of psychobabble has been invented to castigate those who don’t open up: they’re in denial. They’re bottling things up. To stay strong, to keep things private, is madness; to photograph and describe and tweet your physical and mental malaises is sanity.

The pornography of death is the logical conclusion to the oversharing of the 21st century, which is packed with madness memoirs, anorexia columns, child-abuse chronicles — and the justification is always the same. It’s about ‘raising awareness’ or ‘breaking the final taboo’ (the one surrounding death).

I don’t buy it. These are fancy terms for emotional incontinence. Some things are taboo for a reason. Our forebears kept quiet about the details of their decay not because they were scared or stupid, but because they recognised that something sacred is lost if we make them public. Death is a time for saying goodbye to those you truly love, for settling your affairs. Death requires quiet, contemplation, distance from the fussy, nosy world of public life. Invite strangers into this moment and you change it utterly.

The other reason for all the public dying is more troubling than peer pressure. People live their lives online now, seeking affirmation for their every move in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ and so on. To a 21st-century social media addict, an experience isn’t real or valuable unless it’s witnessed and approved of by strangers. Everything is observed. Everything is entertainment. Even death.

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Show comments
  • Sue Smith

    Instagram, Facebook, Twitter….eeeeeeew. Electronic graffiti.

  • FrankS2

    Die? That’s the last thing I’ll do!

    • Stephen Milroy

      I like the Woody Allen line ‘I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens…’

    • smoke me a kipper

      Are you certain?

      • FrankS2

        It’s what your whole life is leading up to!

        • smoke me a kipper

          Life is the prime cause of death.

  • post_x_it

    How could you forget to mention Jade Goody?

  • jim

    A lot to be said for the stiff upper lip.We’ll all have one in the end anyway.

  • Felixthecat

    Apologies if this sounds like a sermon but.

    To be honest, I think this only happens because we are so far removed from death in Western Europe and the United States. In the old days, death and dying were quite common in the public consciousness, whether is was young men in battle, the elderly and young succumbing to disease, or women in childbirth. Such omnipresence of death meant that their were strict parameters and etiquette around grievance and that such things were a private matter. Largely because basically most people had suffered a similar loss, in short it was a coping mechanism before the self-help industry “discovered” coping mechanisms.

    In our era of unrestrained sentimentality, the emotionally incontinent self-indulgently seek sensory titillation after sensory titillation: pornography, violence, foul language, the fetishisation of human misery and poverty, and of course death. My question is what will happen when these people actually encounter genuine human misery, how will they cope? It’s like a politician’s use of word the “sickening” to describe a poor taste joke, did the said gag induce vomiting upon comprehension? If an un-PC joke can provoke that reaction, where is there to go to describe the depraved acts of ISIS?
    I find it more than a coincidence why a lot of people identity with the symptoms of depression after using social media extensively. They’re very similar, a sense of hopelessness, tiredness and a lack of energy and ambition, a mostly feeling of emptiness. In fact these are the same symptoms as an overexposure to sensory stimuli.

  • Stephen Milroy

    Live each day thinking it’s your last. Because one day you’ll be right.

    • Callipygian

      I don’t. I live thinking: if I devote a LOT of time to X, would I be sorry if I had just a week to live? It’s not always a conscious thought, it’s more like the pre-existing requirement:I don’t have to keep rehearsing it. I’m here because something in the world wants me to be here. So I don’t fret about the time when I won’t be here: I enjoy as much as I can the time I have.

  • ohforheavensake

    Brendan (n); slang term for article (print or on-line) displaying knee-jerk contrarian sophistry: from journalist Brendan O’Neill, originator and key exponent of form. As in: ‘I wouldn’t bother reading that. It’s a bit of a Brendan, to be honest.’

    • OutsideTheGate

      oh for heaven’s sake.

  • Dominic Stockford

    The real question of interest is not ‘how I am dying’, after all, we all do that – but rather ‘where do I go from here…?’

    That would be worth discussion.

    • Good point.

      It’s an area that is simply not even acknowledged most of the time in modern, western democracies; as if everyone is spending all their time trying to forget about the fact that they will have to face up to death eventually.

      What other reason than this for the very Western practice of putting one’s parents/grandparents in a home as a coping mechanism for ignoring the impending reality?

    • John Thomas

      Yes, it would be useful to know what proportion of the deathbed-tweeters and cancer bloggers, which Brendan refers to, DONT believe that this life is just the beginning … Probably those who do believe that it’s just the beginning would never bother with these media things.

  • Peter Stroud

    Was it Elgar who had a pre death, photo of his death? A sort of rehearsal.

  • OutsideTheGate

    Wow! I spy ‘incontinence’.

    One of the biggest distinctions we need to make in modern society is between free speech and incontinence, and knowing the difference.

  • Callipygian

    I agree. Fortunately or unfortunately I am going to ‘recommend’ this article. But it’s OK: I have my life and the author has his. It’s a book such as Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? that I have concerns about.

  • Janrpoole

    ^^^^^Get It Now.p-e-c-a-t-o

  • Keith Johnson

    Death is Nature’s way of telling you to take it easy [Reader’s Digest]

  • Charlesshuntley

    NNow Get It -ssppeectator

  • mikewaller

    Surely all such pieces are (a) a means of securing a journalistic income even unto death and/or (b) a means of forcefully saying “Look, I’m not dead yet!”

    As such, is it not rather churlish to criticise?