Baby boomers set about the art of dying well | Gaby Hinsliff

The way Steve Jobs and Philip Gould approached death offers a standard for their generation

Do you secretly hope it comes while you are sleeping, mercifully oblivious? Or amid a raucous gathering of family and friends? Is it better to go out with a bang, risking all for glory, or to slip away quietly into the dark?

There is no settled answer to what constitutes a good death, and even to ask evokes raw emotions – perhaps especially today, as we mourn so many who were denied the choice.

But the response to the recent deaths from cancer of Philip Gould, the high priest of focus group politics, and Apple's chief wizard Steve Jobs, suggests a society increasingly fascinated with the art of dying well. Both naturally meticulous in life, they took the pursuit of excellence quite literally to its logical conclusion, sending back copious dispatches from a land most of us would prefer not to visit.

It's a truism that death seems physically more remote now than it once was. Most of us are not forced daily to watch it coming to the next man along the trench, to experience up close its sounds and smells. Western parents no longer routinely bury their children, as the Victorians did – and while the very old may be nursed somewhat haphazardly in hospital, their children are mostly relieved of the physical duties of the deathbed.

But if it has lost some of its unbearable intimacy, dying hasn't relaxed its hold on the imagination. Past generations surely cannot have foreseen how avidly their grandchildren would explore it, surfing the web for footage of kidnappers beheading victims or clicking on videos of Gaddafi meeting his brutal end. Meanwhile "taboo-busting" documentaries bring the last gasp live into the nation's sitting rooms, and the cancer memoir has become a literary genre all its own.

If it all sounds a little morbid, we shouldn't be surprised. This is an ageing population, and the baby boomer generation now beginning reluctantly to contemplate its own mortality has always sought to rewrite the rules of the life stages through which it passes. It didn't enter its teenage years so much as invent them: when it discovered sex, it did so vigorously enough to shatter social norms about homosexuality and fertility, abortion and divorce. And now it is grappling in a somewhat muddled way with changes at the end of life, which render us all increasingly likely to see the grim reaper coming from some way off.

The history of the last century is one of infectious diseases that tend to kill quickly and suddenly being wiped out in Britain – by vaccination, better public health and, arguably, by the rise of the NHS – and of unpredictable mortal threats being, at least over the last six decades, steadily diminished. We still fight wars, but no longer with conscript armies dying in their hundreds of thousands: our offspring are raised in a padded world of childproof medicine bottles and compulsory car seats. As the psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, by historical standards violent deaths are now relatively rare.

Even dropping dead suddenly on the golf course is less likely, with medical advances almost halving the mortality rate for heart attacks and strokes in a decade. But the flipside of living longer is being exposed to the cruel, creeping, degenerative diseases of old age – certain cancers, or Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's – which we might once have escaped by the admittedly double-edged trick of succumbing to something else first.

That means the boomer generation will be confronted more often with death in slow motion: a cast-iron diagnosis, a prescription of so many months, with the luxury and the curse of time to reflect on the life being lost.

When Jobs's sister, Mona Simpson, wrote that "death didn't happen to Steve, he achieved it", she struck what some felt to be an uncomfortable note – as if mortality was simply one more challenge for overachievers, or a product begging to be taken to the next level. The truth about terminal illness is often far from gung ho. But the idea that a good death is something to be worked at cannot be dismissed.

Gould was not able to choose the precise time or manner of his end, but it still seems for him to have been a considered and purposeful act. He wrote in his last book, The Unfinished Life: An Odyssey of Love and Cancer, of deliberately trying to compress what should have been long leisurely years of fatherhood into a few months: one daughter needing to understand where he got his beliefs and ideas, while the other "asked me to write down every likely eventuality that might befall her, and supply a satisfactory answer", as if to keep him always by her side. Gould said he did not want to die the man he was before his diagnosis and he wielded the knowledge of imminent death as a powerful instrument of change.

It's this promise, however illusory, of exercising some sovereignty over the falling darkness that makes the steady trickle through Dignitas's Swiss clinic so fascinating. But the assisted dying debate still doesn't really live up to its name, focusing too much on the mechanics of death itself and too little on the process that goes before it.

To use one's last months well requires a far more subtle kind of assistance, of a kind once routinely found in religious faith but harder to locate in a secular and questioning age. So these unsparing public accounts of dying are perhaps best read as a tentative kind of prayer for the godless: a lesson in being able when the time eventually comes to leave our children with grace, put right some wrongs, and to accept what we cannot change. And perhaps, then, to rest in peace.


Gaby Hinsliff

The GuardianTramp

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