Book review: The Way We Die Now by Seamus O'Mahony

June 15, 2016
Head of Zeus, £14.99

Dying has lost its dignity. This is the claim made by Irish doctor Seamus O’Mahony in The Way We Die Now. O’Mahony argues that we have over-medicalised death—that we punish terminally ill patients with degrading and, in many cases, pointless attempts to prolong their lives. We should instead, he argues, accept death’s inevitability and leave life in an atmosphere of calm acceptance.

Mahony’s account of how this “sanitisation” of death has happened is complicated. His main argument is that it originates in our increased anxiety around death, which has come about because fewer people in the west are religious. Therefore we carry out unnecessary medical procedures, even when there is no hope, as a way of kidding ourselves that death can be prevented.

The book draws on real-life case studies that O’Mahony has encountered in his work as a gastroenterologist. He cites examples in which terrified family members pressured him into inserting feeding tubes into a patient, even though he thought it would do no good.

While the book’s central thesis is striking, its arguments are not always made clearly. O’Mahony argues: “The power and terror of death refuses to be tamed… by trite formulae,” but sometimes praises the conventional rituals that are built around death. Furthermore, there is little suggestion of how we should come to accept death gracefully.

Still, the book forces you to confront the most uncomfortable of subjects. This is a good thing. Because we don’t reflect enough on death a patient’s final hours are more confusing—and scary—than they should properly be.