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Friday, July 25, 2008

Going Gentle into that Good Night

Sometime after he was diagnosed with end-stage cancer of the pancreas, Michael Miller considered the kind of death he wanted.

His would not take place in the hospital, he vowed. A retired physician in his late 70s, Michael had seen too many patients with fatal illnesses spend their final days in the sterile, clinical environs of his onetime workplace, tubes jammed down their windpipes.

His death would also be under his own control. As far as he could, Michael intended to direct the course of his final exit, to ensure that it was gentle, humane and ultimately peaceful.

How Michael arranged for and carried out that considered death is the subject of Karen van Vuuren's poignant and powerful documentary, Dying Wish (2008, WordWise Productions).

Michael came upon that dying wish after turning up research indicating that it was possible to die with less pain -- and in some cases, with an even heightened sense of well being – by fasting, literally, to death. To show us that such a good death is both possible and largely painless (as well as legal), he invited Karen to record the fast that leads, thirteen days later, to his death.

A lifetime is wrapped up in that final fortnight of Karen's documentary. We see Michael recalling childhood events in the company of his siblings. Reading and flagging sections in a book on death and dying. Enjoying a last meal with his family. And as Michael becomes too weak to rise from his bed, we see him slip -- and that's the word, slip -- slowly into the coma that presages the end. Surrounded by his family, in his own home, in his own bed. As he'd wished and planned for.

Like the physician he was in life, Michael notes his vital signs to the end. He tells us of his increasingly dry mouth, of the ache in his back. He is our guide to the afterlife and, with much grace and courage, shows us that we can take our last steps without fear and in much peace.

For more information about Michael Miller, his fast and how to order DVD copies of Dying Wish, click here. DVDs are $19.99 each for individuals, between $49.99 and $89.99 for organizations.

Note: I'm on vacation next Friday. Back with a post on August 15.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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