Dr Brice Avery is fascinated by two books which challenge our view of mortality
Rethinking Life and Death by Peter Singer, OUP 1995, £7.99. Dancing on the Grave by Nigel Barley, John Murray 1995, £19.99
IN Rethinking Life and Death Peter Singer reminds the reader that there are different ethical structures with which the living can try to cope with death. One way is to start off with an absolute such as "all life is sacred", and another is to work out a unifying theory.
The former method, and the one which Singer asserts we have been muddling through with for too long, employs this absolute as a supposedly untrimmable yardstick. Singer argues that western culture has bent and trimmed the stick to such an extent that it is ridiculous to go on pretending that it is now of any use. Scientific advance is the culprit. We have pinned ourselves into a corner by artificially prolonging life to the point where it has no clear end, and by constantly re-defining what life is.
Drawing on actual cases, Singer shows how medical, legal, and popular management of situations such as persistent vegetative state, babies born breathing but with no brains, and the shifting focus of life (and therefore death) from the guts to the brain has led to this untenable position.
With the philosopher's commendable lack of concern for the impact of his ideas, Peter Singer has written a wonderfully provoking book. He suggests that it is time to grow up over the whole death thing, to stop hiding Pharasaical complexities and conundrums, and to invent a moral and ethical framework on the second model, the unifying theory.
With astonishing boldness Singer creates a set of new command
ments to replace the outmoded ones based on the unworkable central absolute of the sacredness of life. "Recognise that the worth of human life varies", and "Respect a person's desire to live or die," are two of his five commandments; and these might alone be enough to prejudice the reader against the work.
I hope not, however, because the author's aim is clearly to provoke useful debate and it is often to the discredit of Christian moral absolutes that we turn away from a tussle with those who, like Singer, are trying to construct new moralities.
A book that swings almost completely the other way in its desire not to offend is Nigel Barley's Dancing on the Grave. Billing itself as "a fresh look at the astonishing variety of ways in which cultures around the world have handled death," it falls tantalisingly between textbook and anthology.
Barley manages to balance scholarship with entertainment, and openness of prose with coherent structure, to such a marvellous extent that he should immediately be employed in rewriting all school text books.
On the downside, the piecemeal nature of the book, with its bite-sized chunks of information, takes the reader a while to clamber inside. The trick is to be strong minded enough to resist the implicit invitation to dip in and out looking for the juicy bits and instead start at the beginning.
Whether he realises it or not, Barley has constructed his book in the shape of life itself. It begins with a slightly startled and all-inclusive infant stage where we are invited to consider the universality of death.
Next we move into adolescent quegtions of personal relevance, the soul and after-life. In its middle life the book concentrates upon the sheer diversity of ways of living with death. In old age, it becomes ruminative upon issues such as war, murder and capital punishment. Death, in a final chapter entitled "In Memoriam", evokes the primitive terror of trying to cheat death. Death always wins.
The pictures are interesting enough to be worth including. They pale, however, against the twin columns that support this work and which make Barley such a popular author: his infectious enthusiasm and his ability to write beautifully. This book's implicit message that in the West we should reincorporate death into life deserves wide exposure. Indeed, Barley sums up the status quo by pointing out that family photograph albums rarely contain pictures of funerals. Indeed, it would probably be thought of as in bad taste to take the pictures in the first place.