Friday, 11 December 2009

60. Death

My first English teacher in primary school in Jerusalem was Miss Fraenkel - her father was a professor of mathematics at the university. She was a pleasant person. Later she developed pulmonary Tb and had to drop out. Once we understood some English,
at the end of each lesson Miss Fraenkel would read to us, as a treat, installments of a simplified version of 'Moonfleet' by John Falkner [1898]. After more than 60 years, I still remember the poem on the scrap of paper the boy found in the tomb:

man may live some Sixty years
his Feet walk Down a path of tears
use your life Well for death comes soon
from north or South at night or noon...

After some guessing they noticed the words written in capitals and
worked out that these revealed where the diamond was hidden: 'sixty feet down well south'. A clever idea!
I loved that story. Soon I bought the paperback and read ahead.

In recent years, a growing number of our relatives, friends and acquaintances have 'walked down' that path. Sometimes their path was medically fairly obvious to me, and sometimes treatments have been effective. Others were killed by their chemotherapy.
The BMJ obituaries [which I always read first] usually give the cause of death of former colleagues: mainly strokes, heart attacks, and cancers. My own current afflictions are somewhat disabling, but not lethal - so far. Nevertheless, I have obviously given some thought to my own death.

My own death may not be rapid but lingering. So if I start to suffer intolerably, I shall commit suicide. The religious ministers of Judaism and Christianity claim falsely, that they forbid it, but the Bible in fact does not criticize it: prior to explosives, Samson was a 'suicide killer' and king Saul tried to fall on his sword - although in the end his servant had to help him. And Judas, the disciple of Jesus who has betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver, hanged himself. Nobody complained - only the cock crowed...

I will have no need to travel to Switzerland to be helped to commit suicide: A choice of medicaments is available to me at home - as long as I am not discovered prematurely and saved. A recent BMJ issue pointed out the risks to someone who might assist me in any way - they can be accused of murder. So it will need some very careful planning in secret, on my own.

It may still come as a shock to Judith, to my daughters and to some of my close relatives. But by now at least I'm not too young to depart. And I am absolutely sure that there are no after-life or reincarnation: the end is final. The disposal of the dead body is not important. Quite possibly the only comment said during that activity will be that ''he did love cheese''.

For some years I have been fully paid up for cremation. Unlike David Hulbert, I am not worried about the pollution caused by the fumes of mercury from the amalgam in my fillings. The undertaker can extract them first - as the Nazis did for gold. And unlike the widow of king Mausolus, whose passion for him made her eat some of his ashes every day, my ashes can be dumped unceremoniously on the nearest tip. Ruth thought that I might fancy having them scattered on the sea of Galilee. But there may be security, customs and
public health obstacles. For me that would be a wasted journey: I'd rather visit once more, while I'm still alive. (*See end-note)

My father is buried in Jerusalem and my mother in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv. The distance between them after death is irrelevant, and I have not visited either grave in more than 35 years.
Yet I do not remember them less, just because I cannot touch a slab of stone. But one of my second cousins finds my attitude shocking.
When I ordered the grave stone for my mother, the stone mason asked what type I had in mind. I replied: 'the heaviest'. He did not comment. But he told me that his own occupation was actually based on a Jewish ritual deception: he was a Cohen, who was not allowed to enter cemeteries. So he had changed his surname - and nobody knew...

I regard the undertaking industry as profiteering from the bad conscience of the relatives. Embalming, elaborate coffins, funeral masses, family plots and matching tombstones are all a waste of money. By then it is too late for the deceased to benefit from their generosity.
Why not be kinder to them during life, or endow a memorial lecture instead?

When Daphne was little, we found a dead chick that had fallen out of the nest overnight. We put it in the dustbin. Daphne understood: ''When daddy dies, I'll also put him in the dustbin''.
I agreed.

*note (27.03.10): I've just had a comment from my cousin in Israel - in Hebrew, of course. Amos enjoyed reading this blog post but he doubts the possibility of scattering my ashes on the sea of Galilee. By that time, he remarks, there will no longer be water in the lake. That depends on my survival, and the survival of the lake.
I am sure that Israel is now trying to slow down the depletion of the water. Formerly, despite available technology and abundant sunshine,
for many years they neglected action to de-salinate sea water. It is my personal view that they preferred to keep up the pressure on Syria and Jordan, stopping them from using more of the water that they were obliged to pass to their Israeli enemies.