How To Die Gracefully

07/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Telegraph

Death got a rave review the other day. That doesn't happen often. Just off one of London's traffic thoroughfares, there was a profound little exhibition of photographs taken of people before and immediately after they died.

Twenty-four of them, old and young, were recorded by a German photographer, Walter Schels, who was terrified of death and wanted to confront it through his art. The words alongside the portraits reflected the anger, fear, courage or resignation his sitters felt at the imminence of their non-being. What set this poignant group apart was the knowledge that death was not far off - very different from knowing that we are mortal.

But their friends and relatives were engaged in a familiar, sad pretence: "You'll soon be feeling better", "You'll be home soon" and so on. So, to their astonishment, Schels and his partner, Beate Lakotta became their confidantes. With no platitudes to offer and no false comfort, they helped to take the isolation out of death for these people they hardly knew. "I know now how important it is to be there and not to be afraid of asking questions and of listening to the answers," said Lakotta.

The elusive concept of a "good" death has become a hot topic, inspired by the leave-takings of two great communicators, the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain and the American computer science lecturer Randy Pausch.

We are very good at making sure that when people die they are as comfortable and pain-free as possible, they add, but not so good at catering for, and teaching others to care for, the spiritual needs of the dying. So it is time for those dying and those around them to think about where and how they want to die.

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