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Finding dignity in two pavilions of dying

  • 23 October 2017


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.

The 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