Dignity and Death

By Norman Boucher / November / December 1998
November 22nd, 2007
Even the most gregarious among us dies alone. True solitude, in fact, is a reminder of birth and a foreshadowing of death, a taste of liberation and helplessness.

Grace, in all its meanings, is what we hope for as we die. Families and friends can lend us the strength to find it, to open ourselves to it. But there are no guarantees. So much is unknown: is death the end, or the beginning? Our friends, our children, our lovers will all receive the answer in their own time, each of them responding to the approaching event with the idiosyncrasies of his or her own mind and spirit, buoyed by whatever faith can be mustered. There is, finally, no escape. Dignity is a form of grace, and its enemy is time. At its most basic, death is physical, all systems shutting down. We dread most a lingering death, one in which our bodies outlast our courage, when we become a burden even to those who have loved us most. We dread, too, the other threat to dignity: separation from the physical. We fear not being awake to sensations such as fear. To die insensate, bound by tubes, the fading of our heartbeats outvoiced by the beeping of medical machinery - this, we accept, is no way to die.

Hospices are to dying what monasteries are to solitude: refuges for fundamentals that, most of the time, we neglect. Since 1978, the National Hospice Organization has provided refuges that create the space and support for the dignities of death: comfort, kindness, and relief from pain. To mark its twentieth anniversary, the organization commissioned five well-known photographers - Jim Goldberg, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Jack Radcliffe, and Kathy Vargas - to portray hospice life. As is the case with both art and death, what is seen reveals as much about the seer as the subject, and so the photographs on the next few pages - a mere sampling of those displayed at the David Winton Bell Gallery through December 13 - have a personal, unexpected look. Moments of grace, after all, have a way of taking us by surprise, of waking us to the knowledge of how deeply asleep we've been. One afternoon four months before his father died of cancer, Jim Goldberg watched him struggle, out of breath and lost in self-pity. A hospice aide seized the elder Goldberg, hugged him, and reminded him that hospice is "about living to the fullest and comfortably to the end."

"Bullshit," Goldberg's father replied.

The day was his fifty-second wedding anniversary. His wife had prepared a mound of bacon for him, cooked precisely the way he liked it. "Do you know what I really want to do now?" the elder Goldberg asked afterward, his oxygen hose in place, his self-pity in check.

"I want to smoke a cigarette and sing in a karaoke bar."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
November / December 1998