What is a good death?

The world’s thinkers have spent much less time thinking about how to have a good death, or if they have been thinking about it, they’ve kept it to themselves.

Historically, it was probably more important to think about how to live; death often came swiftly and without warning and time to think about it was rare. As we live longer and succumb most often to a slow, steady demise rather than a short sharp exit, thinking about what constitutes a good death has become more common.

Earlier this year, a group of researchers in California reported that they had analysed more than 30 academic studies that had all tried to define a good death. From their review, they came up with 11 core ideas expressed by patients, family and health-care professionals.

Of most importance was being free of pain with the appropriate religious or spiritual arrangements in place. Other common themes were dying with a sense of emotional well-being, passing with dignity and the feeling of ‘completion’ or ‘closure’.

The leader of the study, Dr Dilip Jeste of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, said people don't like to talk about death in detail, but that they should. “It's important to speak honestly and transparently about what kind of death each of us would prefer,” he said.

Related: Why Talking About Death is so Important

Dr Jeste believed the study’s most important finding was that patients should always be asked about how they would like to die. “You can make it possible to have a good death by talking about it sometime before,” he said.

Overcoming our discomfort in talking about death is probably the difficult ‘first step’ on the journey to figuring out how to plan a good death for ourselves.

In an interesting twist on what we would expect, Maggie Ferguson writes in an article in The Economist’s 1843 magazine about her mother and father, both in their 80s and wanting to make arrangements for their passing, speaking with an undertaker who seems unable to use the ‘D’ word.

She explains in the article that, as we live longer lives, we risk fooling ourselves that death is not something we need to be concerned with and she wonders if the only way to get rid of the fear of death is to look at it head on. She interviews a nurse at a London hospice who thinks that kids at school should be talking about death and visits a death café where tea and cake go hand in hand with conversations about mortality.

Neither the Economist article nor the Californian study offers any easy answers on what a good death is or how to have one, but thinking about what you want, talking about it with friends and family and making arrangements in advance seems to be a good place to start.

For more information on ways we can help you plan ahead, make your wishes clear and leave more than happy memories for those you love, take a look at our ‘About Us’ page.