About to die? “I’d rather not know”

I have attended no death-beds, nor am I familiar with mortal illness, so this post might seem a little impertinent.  But I get the impression that the dying are frequently deceived as to the seriousness of their condition; that the nurses and the doctors and the relatives all shy away from telling a dying man that he has little time left.  Many go into the night unawares, perhaps.

By contrast I believe that it was the custom longer ago for a dying man’s relatives to summon the priest or minister, so that the man might prepare himself for death.

Why do modern people hide from the dying that they must soon perish?

I wonder whether, quite simply, it is that these modern people have no belief in any life after death?  That both the patient and the staff share a certainty that there is nothing beyond your last breath? 

For if so, if the dying are without hope, the conduct described makes sense.  The knowledge that you are dying is, I believe, distressing.  The last moments on earth may be eased by empty words and promises of recovery.  And so this is what happens.  In this way the medical staff perform what we might call a ritual, predicated on their religious belief that there is no resurrection, no judgement, no hope of eternal life in bliss, no fear of damnation.  We may legitimately use the terminology “religious belief”, for what else are these but the very centre of most religion?

If, on the other hand, we believe that the dying may well have a future, that they need to prepare to meet their maker, to face judgement, and so forth, then it likewise makes sense to advise the doomed one that he must prepare for that journey.  He must repent of his sins and prepare his soul for a journey known but never experienced.  Here again the relatives and doctors perform a religious service, in prompting the patient and sending for those whose advice may make much difference in what is to follow very shortly.

In short the customs of our own day reflect the religion of our age.  If we do not share that religion, we would be well advised to ensure that we are better served when our time comes.

It is common for us to talk as if people do not act upon the beliefs by which they live.  But in fact people really do act upon their beliefs.  They may not always be conscious of their presuppositions, but an unconscious choice is a choice all the same.

1 Response to “About to die? “I’d rather not know””


  1. stephan

    Very well put Roger. I think Nietzsche put it this way (in famously untranslatable German): “Man would rather will nothingness, than not will at all.” We are all unfortunate victims of our need for certainty. Sometimes new experiences require us to go through them at least once before we know what to expect. Death happens to be one of those experiences.



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