The Good Death Through Time
‘I have quite a bit of understanding of white man’s ways but it is difficult for me to understand this one’. A Senate committee investigation of Australia’s Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995, the first legislation in the world which allowed doctors to actively assist patients to die, found that for the vast majority of Indigenous Territorians, the idea that a physician – or anyone else – should help end a dying, suffering person’s life was so foreign that in some instances it proved almost impossible to translate. This book explores how such a death became a thinkable – even desirable – way to die for so many others in Western cultures. Though ‘euthanasia’, meaning ‘good death’, derives from ancient Greece, for the Greeks this was a matter of Fate, or a gift the gods bestowed on the virtuous or simply lucky. Caring for the dying was not part of the doctor’s remit. For the Victorians, a good death meant one blessed by God and widespread belief in a divine design and the value of suffering created resistance to new forms of pain relief. And today, while most in the Western world cleave to the modern medical view that pain is an aberration, to be, where possible, eliminated, complex cultural, ethical and practical questions regarding what makes for a good death remain. As Caitlin Mahar memorably shows in The Good Death Through Time, understanding the radical historical shift in Western attitudes to managing dying and suffering helps us better grasp the stakes in today’s contestations over what it means to die well.
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