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ss triple helix - autumn 2017,  the way we die now

the way we die now

Seamus O'Mahony

  • Head of Zeus, 2016, £14.99, 292pp, ISBN 9781784974268
  • Reviewed by Claire Stark Toller, a Consultant in Palliative Medicine based in Southampton

Written by a consultant physician, this erudite but readable book explores the philosophical, cultural and medical influences that mould our Western view of death. O'Mahony starts with a personal overview of death and the ritualistic framework provided by the Catholic church. He discusses how the mutual conspiracy between the medical profession and society to deny death has contributed to its medicalisation.

With almost unbridled frankness he argues that our society chooses to use hospitals as 'dustbins' for the inconvenient elderly and dying; anyone who has worked in an NHS hospital will recognise the situations described. He examines the impact of 'celebrity' deaths and legal cases on our narrative of death. Exploring briefly the views of 20th century philosophers, he conceives the rise of autonomy and individualism as drivers for our unattainable wish for a controlled death, but expresses pragmatic reservations about legalisation of euthanasia. Reviewing the development of palliative care, he argues that while aiming to demedicalise death, it has also been responsible for contributing to its sub-specialisation.

The book is not written from a Christian perspective, but O'Mahony completes his ten chapters with 'modest proposals' that the expansiveness of over-medicalisation needs to be reined in. A work that would be of interest to all doctors, but particularly those working in secondary care and who seek broad philosophical, cultural and historical reflections on death.

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