A Dignified Death? Posted 22 Jul 2019
The ideal death scenario is the death we would orchestrate for ourselves. The characteristics of such a death seem to be timeliness, painlessness, consciousness, and preparedness. Death would come in later years; it would not be premature. We would be in control of our faculties, alert, and able to communicate. The occasion would not occur suddenly but rather eventually, with time for both philosophical and emotional preparation. We would be able to speak last words and receive the responsive farewells.
Jacques Louis David’s classical painting, Death of Socrates, offers a visual interpretation of this ideal death. Socrates is presented just before he drinks the hemlock that will kill him. Although late in years, the philosopher epitomises vigour, stoicism and decisiveness in his stance. His death is the ultimate expression of virtue; the laying down of one’s life for the defence of ideals. The beloved teacher is surrounded by his grieving family, students and jailer. His finger points heavenward, probably indicating his resolve or perhaps the path his soul will take.
In contrast, the unreconciled, painful scene suggested by the contemporary Beckmann painting, Large Death Scene, markedly opposes the peaceful leavetaking of the painting, the Death of Socrates. The last moments of this man’s death are undignified, unromanticized and unbeautiful. There is no sense of composure, control, or communication. Rather, this expressionist work lays bare the indignity that can befall a person whose dying is prolonged. Raw, naked agony is portrayed by the dying man’s postures and by those witnessing his demise.
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 Contents of this page prepared by Len Warren based on extracts from Facing Death: Images, Insights, and Interventions A Handbook for Educators, Healthcare Professionals and Counsellors, Sandra L Bertman, Taylor & Francis, 1991