WE are born, we live and we die. Impressive progress has been made discussing and understanding sexual reproduction (without, for the record, robbing it of its beauty and mystery), and bookstores are chockablock with tomes proffering advice on how to live.
Death and dying, however, remain shrouded in opaque sheets of euphemism, innuendo and consequent fear. Death, more now than sex, is humanity’s dirty little secret.
Into this milieu comes this heavily illustrated guide to the inevitable by two Montreal research scientists. As many of us ponder presents for pampered loved ones, Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras offer a well-written and uplifting coffee-table-style book, one, however, that would certainly be an awkwardly received gift.
"While it is impossible to prevent death," they write, carelessly implying that this is obviously and always a laudable goal, "it is nonetheless possible to assuage fear of it by… (demystifying) the mechanisms involved in death."
Having previously published two self-help health books ( Foods That Fight Cancer and Cooking with Foods That Fight Cancer), Beliveau and Gingras continue to target the lay reader.
Death nevertheless treats on biology, biochemistry and multiple matters medical. In a sidebar, "five golden rules to prevent chronic illness," we are enjoined first and foremost to not smoke (or quit), and to maintain a healthy body weight.
Imbued with a Darwinian understanding of life, Beliveau and Gingras necessarily speak of evolution, the only lens through which our biological existence can be described, let alone explained.
They remind readers that "we now know that the evolution and diversification of life did not occur by chance, but rather because of an implacable law of nature, called natural selection," and that this law mandates that we are born to die (having reproduced along the way if possible).
"Death," they note, "is an essential prerequisite for life to continue and evolve"; we all must participate in nature’s magnificent recycling program.
Lest the notion that life did "not occur by chance" be misinterpreted, they comment on Homo religiousus in a way appropriate for informed 21st-century scientists. And they dedicate an entire chapter to molecular neurology and the brain, "a material soul," in which they note that death "is really the death of this cerebral soul, the signature of our identity."
The book discusses (but doesn’t examine) modern medicine’s indefatigable and mostly worthy efforts to "compress morbidity," to enable all and sundry to thrive, experience but a short period of senescence and morbidity, and die.
While they comment briefly on euthanasia, Beliveau and Gingras take no formal position on the matter. Nor do they make any connection between the increasingly vocal demand for legalized euthanasia in some quarters and medicine’s quest for, and promise of, compressed morbidity.
Death is a beautiful book, dense with illustrations and photographs, none of which sensationalizes or is apt to offend. Notwithstanding its putative intent, however, and unlike Sherwin Nuland’s 1993 How We Die, it doesn’t in any significant way demystify death.
Like Nuland, however, Beliveau and Gingras demand that we attend to the proverbial elephants in our living rooms. And in a way that surpasses Nuland, they remind us that life is "a sublime experience."
They emphasize, time and again, "the extent to which a human life is an experience that is as incredible as it is improbable, an absolutely astounding event with its origins in a tiny primitive cell that appeared more than three billion years ago."
Ted St. Godard is a Winnipeg physician whose patients daily remind him to smell the roses.