DeathIn my short but colourful life I have almost died on one occasion (nearly drowned) and seriously considered killing myself on another (hadn’t chosen a particular method). I’m glad I didn’t in both cases. But there may come a time when death would be preferable to life and debate still rages as to whether or not we should be allowed by our government to end our own lives with proper assistance or assist others in ending theirs. If I ever consider my life not worth living – perhaps I come down with some incurable disease involving a lot of suffering for no gain – I would like to think someone would stick a needle in my arse, provide me with a bottle of vodka and 50 sleeping pills, hold a pillow over my face, or boil me in oil. Something. It’s my life and I should be able to make a decision about when and how I die. I certainly shouldn’t be forced to stay alive and suffer against my will.

People generally don’t like talking about death: what it is, what it means, what happens, should we fear it, should we embrace it, and does it really matter. But since it’s the only thing guaranteed to all of us, it’s worth a bit of consideration. Government is trying it’s best through a plethora of social policies to legislate our way to immortality. But no amount of government legislation is going to make a blind bit of difference to the only certain thing about your life: it will end.

Death is essentially the cessation of all our bodily functions: our breathing, circulation, movement, farting, and, most importantly our consciousness. And then it’s “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” time for us. To that end death isn’t something we experience: death is the end of all experiences. It’s part of the life cycle, the big “circle of life” as the Lion King puts it. Leaves die, fall off, turn to humus and feed the seeds of the next generation, or as one philosopher once put it: “the death and transformation of autumn is essential to spring.” If some human beings I have met were any more stupid we would have to water them twice a day. Alas they still differ from leaves: they are self-conscious beings who tend to regard death as a loss. Death comes too soon for many people – long before their interest in the world has gone. But death itself is not to be feared: it is comparable to dreamless sleep, or more accurately to having never been born. In fact, I suspect that what most people fear isn’t death – but dying, the process by which it comes to an end.

One of my favourite books is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a wonderful work of stoic philosophy. In it he writes: “Though thou shouldest be going to live three thousand years and as many times ten thousand years, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses. The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same. For the present is the same to all, though that which is past is not the same; and so that which is lost appears to be a mere moment. For a man cannot lose either the past or the future: for what a man has not, how can any one take this from him?” [Emphasis mine]. He then continues to speak of death as “nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.” I agree that death is not an inherent evil. It is only what it takes from us that makes it good or evil. Death might rob us of a dear friend or relative, and we experience that as evil. But, if death takes away unbearable and interminable pain then surely it is a good.

It is in the context of such thoughts that I considered the story of Robert and Vanessa Cook. Robert Cook was given a 12 month suspended sentence on Friday for the manslaughter of his wife, Vanessa. They had been married for 29 years when his wife came down with a debilitating disease and no longer wanted to live. She had reached a point whereby her present was so painful and with her future promising no relief she wanted the next chapter of her life to be the last. And one day it was. Her husband, on her instructions, suffocated her to death after she had taken an overdose.

Despite there being two notes in Mrs Cook’s handwriting expressing her wish to die, Robert Cook, who has no previous convictions, was arrested for murder. Mrs Cook’s own brother and sister supported Cook throughout the trial. The judge in the case said: “Your wife, I’m wholly satisfied, had reached the limits of her personal endurance and as her full-time carer, you had done all you could do to care for her for many years.” He went on to say that due to the exceptional circumstances a jail term was not necessary.

This decision was undoubtedly the right one and hopefully it will strengthen the case for legal euthanasia in Britain. For us libertarians it is frustratingly obvious that we should have the right to end our lives in a certain way and assist others if they choose so. However, too many people consider death as an evil, avoid thinking rationally about it, and even refuse to allow people such as Vanessa Cook, or Diane Pretty, or Terri Schiavo, the right to embrace the dignified death that they wished. Vanessa Cook died with a plastic bag over her head and her husband facing a murder charge. She shouldn’t have. She should have been allowed a more dignified death than this. But our rights-denying government said “no.” Our laws are failing the terminally ill and their relatives. Unfortunately the senile old buggers of the House of Lords vetoed a Bill that would have enabled British doctors to practise a controlled form of euthanasia. Instead it is deemed preferable that a man like Robert Cook had to face a murder charge when he should have been grieving and treated compassionately.

The only crime that was committed in the case of Robert and Vanessa Cook was the interference of the state.

When are we going to face the reality of death? And when will our laws change to allow us to ask a doctor for help when we decide our lives should end?

Dylan Thomas famously wrote, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He was wrong. There are worse things than “the dying of the light.” It’s not as poetically wonderful but the line should read, “rage, rage against those who wish to keep the light burning no matter what.”

One day my own light will start to die, and when it does I’d rather the last thing my eyes see wasn’t the inside of a plastic bag.