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A forensic pathologist on the legacy of lockdown: I look at death every day – let’s change the way we talk about it | Death and dying


BUTAs a forensic pathologist, dead people of all ages, shapes and sizes have been at the center of my career. Many times a day for the past 40 years, I have looked at death closely and directly, knowing that for many, perhaps most of the people I have seen, the beginning of their last day was perfectly normal. Death came quickly and unexpectedly. Therefore, when I get dressed every morning, I often think about where I will end up at the end of the day. Houses? Or at the morgue, when they put him in the refrigerator on a shiny tray?

In medical circles, we have been expecting a global pandemic for decades. The HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s was a grim milestone that claimed about 36 million lives worldwide, but I never imagined that the first pandemic of the 21st century would develop from a virus in China. I expected this to happen as a result of a lethal reorganization of the DNA of the influenza virus – as happened in 1918, when the “Spanish flu” killed at least 50 million people worldwide, and in subsequent less deadly flu pandemics: 2 million people died. during the 1957 flu pandemic and 1 million each in 1968 and 1977. The last notable flu pandemic was swine flu in 2009, which killed about 500,000 people. A serious influenza pandemic came about 50 years later.

I know I am unusual in that I have had such a longstanding personal understanding of death and the fundamentally precarious nature of our lives. Many of us have never seen a corpse, not even a close relative. In our westernized urban society, the tradition of paying respect to the body in an open coffin in the living room has become rare. This made it possible to recognize the normality of death: to face it; review your answers; remember your own inconstancy.

By the beginning of this century, it seemed to me that death had become a topic that should generally be avoided, hushed up, glossed over and (if at all possible) simply ignored, at least until a person encounters it personally. Now, the lack of that experience often means it feels overwhelming.

Dr. Richard Shepherd
“I know that I am unusual in that I had such a long personal understanding of death” … Dr. Richard Shepherd.

Before Covid, I noticed that our language was becoming more and more euphemistic. The noun is “death”, the verb is “to die”, but these words were rarely heard. Death became “transitory” – and the focus was usually on “relieving this transitory”, sanitizing and smoothing it, and managing death in such a way as to divert suffering. I felt I was seeing a significant gap between the deep human process of mourning, with its existing pain, stress and sadness, and the mitigating goals of the death industry. It was a break that many welcomed.

The pandemic has challenged this approach in almost every way. Suddenly, death and the consequences of death were the focus of all the news day after day. The facts were harsh and painful, the words harsh. The noun was “death”, the verb was “to die”. These people didn’t “pass”. Covid, I hate your harvest, but I thank you for restoring such an endangered language.

As the pandemic has continued, family interviews have become the modern day equivalent of a casket in the living room. Where once there was little or no desire to see the body after death, now the denial of contact at the end of life and beyond was traumatic.

I hope that one positive side of our new reality is a change in society’s attitude towards death. It’s too early to tell – and I may never be able to tell, as I’m inside the taboo, looking out. But from my point of view, I would say that a new willingness to deal with death would be a healthy change.

I’m lucky. Few of my loved ones have contracted Covid; no one died from it and was not even hospitalized. However, during the course of the pandemic, three of my friends died: two from natural diseases – one suddenly, one slowly and painfully – and one in an accident. Covid has killed many, but even in the midst of the pandemic, I was reminded that people continue to die for other reasons, and that those causes are also killing millions.

Let’s face it, the inevitable fact that people die. Until then, life is for living.

Dr. Richard Shepard is a pathologist and author. Seven ages of death out now (Michael Joseph, £20). To support the Guardian and Observer, buy your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply



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