Modern society’s jaded view of life
As Jade Goody’s slow death in public shows, dying is celebrated as one of the few things that still seems to unite us.
Back in 2005, it was Pope John Paul II who was on celebrity death watch. Breaking news about his decaying body dominated the headlines for months; it was almost impossible to avoid bulletins about his fever, due to a urinary tract infection, or the descriptions of his frail and fading condition.
Who would have thought that an old pope would be treated in a similar way to a reality TV star? Today, it is Jade Goody, the British reality TV star, who is on a media death watch. The news informs me that Goody, who is terminally ill, has been left bed-ridden by the exertions of her wedding. We’ve learned that Wendy Richard, the EastEnders actress who recently died of cancer, sent her a message of hope. Apparently Goody receives pain injections from a nurse every four hours. Now we are getting blow-by-blow accounts of the debate over whether she needs bowel surgery to relieve her terrible pain.
Before Goody, there was Australian TV presenter Steve Irwin’s sudden demise, in 2006, after he got too close to a stingray. Debates raged about whether TV should air the footage of his death (he was said to be filming when it happened). Before that, there were the gruesome photographs of footballer George Best in his hospital bed, drawing his last breath. There have also been images of Terri Schiavo, the American woman in a permanent vegetative state who was the focus of high-profile arguments about euthanasia.
More recently, there was the televised assisted suicide of Craig Ewart, a motor neurone disease sufferer, at the Swiss Dignitas clinic. His death was shown on the satellite TV channel Sky Real Lives (no irony intended) three months ago. When the furore over his death had diminished, the news of Goody’s cancer took centre stage. Goody, in turn, is likely to be replaced by someone else. In one of the many newspaper columns about Jade, a columnist for The Times (London) chose to weave in the fate of author Terry Pratchett, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the broadcaster John Suchet, whose wife Bonnie is lost to dementia, as well as her own mother’s death (1).
Defending the extensive media interest in Jade’s plight, an editorial in the Guardian argued that Goody ‘In the long run we are all dead, yet modern life is increasingly shielded from that reality… In her own way, Jade Goody is doing something to correct our self-deceiving denial of death.’ (2) Justine Picardie, whose late sister, Ruth, wrote a column in the Observer about her losing battle with cancer a decade ago, argued in The Sunday Times that Ruth’s public display was a way ‘to bring death into everyday life at a time when we were encouraged to believe that youth and beauty were all that matter and dying was an unpleasant subject that had become far more of a taboo than sex’ (3). Similarly, journalist Carol Midgley demanded to know why ‘are we obsessed with the idea of death itself being private?’ (4).
When hardly a day goes by without death and dying being portrayed graphically in the news headlines, how can high-profile interest in death be promoted as ‘breaking a taboo’? In reality, there is no such taboo about discussing and displaying death in the public realm – nor has there been for some time.
Thirty years ago, shortly before a dramatic increase in death and dying theory and research in academia, Michael Simpson’s book, Dying, Death and Grief, began: ‘Death is a very badly kept secret; such an unmentionable topic that there are over 650 books now in print asserting that we are ignoring the subject.’ (Simpson, 1979) Tony Walter, author of The Revival of Death, writes: ‘The announcement that death is taboo and that our society denies death, yet death is more and more talked of… this sounds like a society obsessed with death, not one that denies it.’ (Walter, 1991)
In 1981, the historian David Cannadine also disputed the idea that ours is a period of denial of death. He argued that the debate over death in the 1980s, which also portrayed it as taboo and which favourably compared the elaborate mourning of the Victorian period with more reserved modern practices, was highly nostalgic. For Cannadine, the writers who argued that denial was a problem failed to appreciate the positive changes in the previous century, in which improvements in public health removed the dominion of death over people’s everyday lives. People live longer and are healthier, he proclaimed, and that is why death is less domineering – and a good thing, too.
But there is more to the modern obsession with death than nostalgic forgetfulness. The central problem lies with society’s struggle to give meaning to life today, and to find ways in which we might collectively mourn our dead.
Tony Walter has argued that with social fragmentation, and the erosion of community and religion, people are left isolated when grieving. In a culture in which the self is the authority, in which there is a great emphasis on ‘self-expression’, there is more and more talking therapy and theory on the grief process, says Walter, but this has not created a ‘social ritual’ that can provide solace.
Being able to give our private grief public meaning, and to mark the loss of our loved ones, is important. Society’s ability to do this reflects on the significance that we accord to human life. Rituals help to demonstrate respect for those who have gone, and help to contain the loss – and the fears – of the living. When someone dies, it threatens the social fabric; it throws up questions about our purpose in life, which we need answers to. If we cannot find ways to affirm life, we demote its importance and ultimately diminish it.
Creating and affirming the value of human life, however, is quite different to parading the terminally ill in front of the cameras and in newspaper headlines. Exposing one’s grief on television is not the same as giving private loss broader cultural recognition, or sharing and recognising mourning. There is something coercive in the demand that we all lament in full view of the media. Who knows how sympathetic the vulture-like commentariat would have been if Jade and her new husband, Jack Tweed, had chosen to deal with their misfortune behind closed doors, away from prying eyes.
Many commentaries on the dying or recently deceased, whether it’s a religious leader or a C-list celebrity, are modern-day memento mori, practically celebrating death. Books, TV programmes, newspapers and commentary consistently inform us that we are going to die, that it hurts, and that our bodies will decay. There is a particular fascination with the collapse of our bodies, and in Jade’s case with her pain, her bowels, her bald head following chemotherapy. We cannot escape the detail of death today.
There is sometimes a mocking tone, too, for example, in the Guardian editorial which states ‘in the long run we are all dead’, and in the comments from those who once demonised Jade as a vulgar chav yet who now laud her bravery on her deathbed. Maybe they feel that she now knows her place.
Instead of a healthy and collective discussion about how to give life meaning, and how to mark its passing, we have an increasingly morbid fascination with the physical process of dying. Rather than finding meaning in the face of death, some look for meaning in the act of dying.
This trend doesn’t just apply to the media. In their book The Social Construction of Reality (1967), sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman examined the impact of the finite time (of life), and our anxiety about the temporary nature of our existence. They suggested that death posits the most terrifying threat to the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life. We all need to find ways to legitimise death within our own lives. Berger and Luckman did not judge the different ways of legitimising death, but argued that they must enable individuals to continue to live after the death of a significant other and to anticipate their own death without being paralysed by anxiety. We need to find ways to shelter ourselves from the terror of death, they said.
More recently, writers and commentators have begun to see death as a potential solution to the problems of life and of society. For example, social scientists Michael Young and Lesley Cullen claim that ‘death is the experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds. The presence of death, for all its terror and bitterness, can also generate the mystical sense of unity with other people which transcends the boundaries of the body and the self. Individualism has no doubt made people feel more separate from each other… But in adversity, and especially in the supreme adversity, something even more fundamental can break through.’
There is an important shift taking place here. Berger and Luckman were interested in how man creates a sense of life in the face of material limits and the termination of existence. For Young and Cullen, however, the starting point is the desire to create common bonds, and death, apparently, is a means of forging those bonds. For Young and Cullen, death is something around which society can be organised; it is the common experience around which we can unite.
In recent times, death and dying have been turned into something valuable in their own right. The words now associated with death – dignity, choice, rights – reflect this fact. The campaigns that call for assisted suicide, the voices that demand the ‘opening up’ of death and argue that it should dominate our public sphere, seem just a little too keen on mortality, just a little too close to cheering as we head into that good night.
We are on the verge of elevating the worth of death at the expense of valuing life. Relishing dying, exposing peoples’ pain to the headlines or drooling over their decay, is no way to affirm the significance of our lives or those of our loved ones – and it is no way to deal properly with death, either.
Dr Tiffany Jenkins is an academic and writer. Visit her blog here. She is presenting a paper on the contestation over human remains in museum collections, at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath on 12 March 2009. For further information, visit the University of Bath website.
Mick Hume criticised the reaction to the death of David Cameron’s son. Brendan O’Neill looked at the media’s response to Jade Goody and her ‘celebrity cancer’ and reviewed a book examining Britain’s ‘conspicuous compassion’. Frank Furedi examined our unhealthy obsession with sickness. Rob Lyons explained why grief should not be a national sport. Or read more at spiked issue Death and mourning.
(1) A slow, private death, an urgent public issue, The Times (London), 19 February 2009
(2) The British way of death, Guardian, 17 February 2009
(3) Why should Jade Goody go quietly?, The Sunday Times, 22 February 2009
(4) Jade Goody: why resent the brutal reality show that her dying has become?, The Times (London), 19 February 2009
Berger, P., Luckmann, T. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality, London, Penguin Books
Cannadine, D. (1981) ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’, in Whaley, J. (ed) Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death, London: Europa Publications pp. 187-242
Simspon, M. (1979) Dying, death and grief; a critically annotated bibliography and source book of thanatology and terminal care, New York, London: Plenum Press.
Walter, T. (1994) The Revival of Death, London & New York: Routledge
Young, M. and Cullen, L. (1996) A Good Death: Conversations with East Londoners, London: Routledge
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