Finding dignity in two pavilions of dying

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Each October I join a ceremony at Ozanam House homelessness and housing crisis centre in Melbourne to remember people in its programs who have died during the year. Including volunteers, 30 or so people are remembered. Their colleagues and friends from the streets and staff members of the Ozanam programs and friends fill the hall.

Dead leafThe name of each person who has died is placed on a blessing tree. Their names are also held on brass plates on the wall. One of the Ozanam staff or a friend speaks a few words about the distinctive qualities of each person remembered and lights a candle for them. Someone may also sing a song for them. At the end of the service the brass plates are sprinkled with water and blessed.

It is a simple but poignant ceremony. Many of the people remembered are homeless and have fallen on hard times. They leave few memories, few known relatives and fewer possessions. One might have expected that their lives would have been forgotten, the manner of their living and the fact of their dying lost to memory.

Yet here they are remembered in their quirky humanity and humour, and often farewelled with tears, held in the hearts of people who accompanied them in the ending of often painful lives. For an outsider like myself it is a privilege to have a part in this celebration of life and death at its most real, and often least articulate. It is an affirmation of the dignity that attaches to every life and death, however dishevelled.

At the time of this year's celebration legislation was being prepared in the Victorian Parliament to allow assisted dying under strict conditions. It was promoted by poignant media coverage of people who appealed for the freedom of sick relatives to have their lives ended.

They described the indignity along which the road to death would take them, and the pain of accompanying them helplessly. They asked for the freedom to die a dignified death that would be under their own control. It was difficult not to be touched by the pain evident in such stories or to feel sympathy for those wanting to die in a dignified way.

I was struck by the difference between the two kinds of reflection on life and death embodied at Ozanam House and in discussion of assisted dying. It seemed to lie especially in the articulacy of the appeal to be able to die under favourable conditions and the inarticulacy of those celebrated at Ozanam House. They had died as modestly and wordlessly as they had lived.

 

"While I can appreciate the neatness and autonomy in a death that is subject to choice, I warm to the way in which the powerless deaths of apparently forgotten people bring people together."

 

I felt sympathy for the people who wished to be able to die and for their friends who wished to help them in their dying. I delighted in the company of the people who held each other tenderly in mind, and whose life and death were both seen to be gifts. They seemed to have effortlessly the dignity for which the others craved.

At a deeper level the difference seemed to reflect the character of the canopy which is held over life and death in each case and the shelter it offers to those touched by mortality. The canopy at Ozanam was rich and was woven out of gift. The people whose deaths were recorded did not work to be remembered. Nor did they ask for it. They took life and death as they came, and accepted their forgetting as much as their remembering.

That they are remembered, that their monument is bronze and yet more enduring, that people gathered to be thankful for their lives and to weep for their deaths, and that their names and their memory are held in a community, were totally uncovenanted. Their celebration had nothing to do with their own choice, and everything to do with others' gift. It reflected the dignity they were given in being human.

The canopy held over the person who chooses when to die can also be generous. It expresses the choice, both of the persons who choose their time of death and of the friends who participate in their choice. Their choice shapes how they will be remembered and expresses their control over life and death. Their friends may come to farewell and stay to weep for them.

Comparing the two pavilions of dying I can appreciate the neatness and autonomy in a death that is subject to choice. I warm to the overwhelming gift in the messiness of the other and the way in which the powerless deaths of apparently forgotten people bring people together. The dignity in dying for which one group of people strives seems so superficial compared to the dignity in living and dying that the other group holds without strain.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, homelessness, euthanasia


 

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One of the more beautiful poems to have been published on ES
john frawley | 23 October 2017


Paul Keating wrote movingly about his opposition to assisted dying and I agree with his thoughtful words. And so I also agree with your gentle, profound words Andy. In Philip Hodgins' poem "Wordy Wordy Numb Numb" he confronts the subject of death with great poise.
Pam | 23 October 2017


Ever poetic, Andy. Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the dignity of life and death. You brought to mind a recent funeral I attended of a simple, undemonstrative but popular person whose life has seen hard times. Attended by hundreds from his various connections, his funeral revealed a life rich with people and small events unknown to most. A quiet 'knockabout' fellow of understated charm and a love of football, singing and playing his beloved sax. He will be remembered by many and each memory will be of a different quality. Such is the richness of every life. Vale Greg.
Anne Doyle | 24 October 2017


Thank you for this elegy Andy which poetically celebrates the human and the divine in our dying. Pam's reference to Philip Hodgins poem where he talks about "the arrogance of health, those dumb days, when nothing can touch you..." is salutary too.
Rod | 24 October 2017


Great Thanks, Andy, for a memorably unique and poetic contribution to the drama played out Centrestage on the Victorian Assisted Dying Bill. You nail the difference between those, on the one hand naturally eager for a pain-free death and others and their friends, whose focus is on the bits'n'pieces of life and death as they await us all and must inevitably gain our release. I've yet to read a reflection or hear about a liturgy, such as the one you describe at Ozanam House, that focuses on release and its consolations as opposed to what Foucault calls "an intensification of each individual's desire, for, in and over his body". (http://ccdigitalpress.org/strategic/chapters/pigg/problem.htm). Stay well.
Michael Furtado | 24 October 2017


Thank you Andy, for the gentle grace of your reflection on ways of dying and ways of marking the worth of people's lives. people. You breathe air into a fraught debate, and you help me – and many others – think, without rancour or fear.
Morag Fraser | 24 October 2017


On reading Andrew's piece I was immediately reminded of Archdeacon Paley's piece 'Reasons for Contentment' which was addressed to the 'Labouring Part of the British Public' and in which Paley sought to persuade the poor that they were much better off than the rich because they were not troubled by riches, property, and all the difficult decisions that went with ownership of capital. See < https://archive.org/details/reasonsforconten00paleiala > Paley of course was of the propertied class himself and keen to keep the poor in their place. Clearly Andrew is not another Paley, yet his piece could be used to play down the importance of dignity in death for all, not just for those who are remembered at the Ozanam House ceremony.
Ginger Meggs | 24 October 2017


I am of an age where I am able to appreciate that control or imagined control is not all that it is cracked up to be...hence my deep appreciation of this article which celebrates the more touching rememberance of death rather than the 'tideness' of a medical assisted suicide.
Helen M Donnellan | 24 October 2017


Hans Kung said something to this effect: "God gave me life and now I shall give it back to Him." Those who voluntarily surrender their lives to God may be as deeply mourned and as reverently remembered as those whose lives end in patient suffering, I think.
Joan Dugdale | 25 October 2017


For inhabitants of Ozanam House life has been harder and usually briefer than those in more affluent circumstances. Theirs is a camaraderie forged in circumstances of mutual hardship. The prime advocates of legalised assisted suicide seem to be those from more affluent circumstances. Some of these, like Philip Nitschke, appear to be in good health. Why then their interest? Better palliative care - in extremely short supply in Australia - would, to me, seem a much better and far more humane option.
Edward Fido | 25 October 2017


“The dignity in dying for which one group of people strives seems so superficial compared to the dignity in living and dying that the other group holds without strain.” How? When the euthanasia bill passes the Victorian Upper House and is signed into law, every anniversary of its passing can be celebrated as Death with Dignity Day with all the understated gravitas of an Ozanam House memorial. Unless one explicitly believes that only God may decree when life is to be returned, one has no effective grounds for opposing a strict and regulated regime of euthanasia. Euthanasia is wrong because God through his Church says it is, and that’s all there is to it. That, of course, raises questions as to how separable democracy is from the Western civilizational values which infuse the fibre of its history. It isn’t, and if it isn’t in this case, it’s not separable either in the other contemporary claims of personal autonomy.
Roy Chen Yee | 26 October 2017


Bravo, Andrew, for your words on the dignity of each person, especially at their death
Clem Cafarella | 27 October 2017


There are lots of ‘values’ other than religion that ‘infuse the fibres of Western civilisation’ Roy - racism, colonialism, exploitation of the environment, imperial dispossession, and so on. Religion need not, indeed ought not, be an integral part of modern states any more than these other values that I have listed.
Ginger Meggs | 28 October 2017


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