Shaking Hands with Death – Terry Pratchett

“Most men don’t fear death. They fear those things – the knife, the shipwreck, the illness, the bomb – which precede, by microseconds if you’re lucky, and many years if you’re not, the moment of death.” – Terry Pratchett

This particular post is a little bit different to my usual reviews insofar as it isn’t purely a review. It’s also a discussion on my opinions on a very divisive subject that Terry Pratchett wrote about. It is also different in that this isn’t strictly speaking about a book. Okay – it has a front and back cover, a selection of printed pages and is all bound, but really it is a lecture. This lecture was written for the Richard Dimbley Lectures, which is televised on the BBC. It went to air back in 2010. I didn’t see it on its first outing, but I did see it on Youtube.
20150812_065028This brilliant essay talks about a subject many of us find difficult to talk about – death. And even more controversially, how and when we die as a matter of choice under certain circumstances. And that’s where the discussion comes in – I know everyone has an opinion, myself included. This post will mostly deliver my opinion. My hope is it will strike up debate. I am well aware debate is a dangerous thing. It can lead to stick waving, torch burning, insult throwing, projectile hurling, and worse – some trying to enforce their opinion on others as gospel. But all I am looking for is good-natured, open and honest exchange of opinions without the baring of teeth and scratching of claws.

So on to the post. Pratchett was diagnosed at the age of 59 with posterior cortical atrophy – a rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease. And this made him angry, knowing that he faced a decline in mental function until the terminal end game. It wouldn’t be quick, or dignified or pretty. Having watched his father die of cancer, he knew all about slow, oft-painful ends. And that is where this essay comes from. Ultimately he poses the question – under terminal circumstances, why can we not reach the end of life at a time and place of our choosing, with comfort and dignity assured?

Pratchett watched his own father suffer a slow journey to the other side thanks to cancer. And all he could do was to sit and wait for the moment. Would he have done something about it if he could? In his words – if a nurse put a syringe in his hand, he would willingly have pressed the plunger. But now, from the relatively young age of 59, he knew he was looking at a slow progression towards the end. It might not be the same as other illnesses but he ultimately knew what was coming, and that he couldn’t do anything about it.

Death can be tough, tough for the person succumbing and tougher still for the loved ones they leave behind. This is where the whole “dying with dignity” debate gets pretty messy. When a person suffers from a terminal illness, they may be with us for some time. Sadly very few terminal conditions are pain free. They often require much treatment, love and care. Which naturally, we try to give them. But sometimes the thought of loss can cloud our judgement, guided by emotion. We would do anything to keep our loved ones with us for just a bit longer.

But is this the best thing for our loved one? Is it the best thing for us? You could argue that it is only delaying the inevitable rather than stopping it altogether. Throughout history, on TV, in literature and in mythology there have been many forms of Death, or similar anthropomorphic personifications, as Pratchett would put it, of such characters. And constantly people try to dodge, avoid or otherwise cheat death. They challenge him to a game. Often chess, or similar. If they win, they ask for a longer life, if they lose, Death takes them there and then.

But winning only extends life. Sooner or later, we must all face death. In his lecture, Pratchett references an ancient Babylonian myth that really illustrates this idea. This is the fable as retold by author W. Somerset Maugham in 1933, though the story is much older:

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

This goes to show, we can only prolong the inevitable – and we can be sure there are only two things in the world that are inevitable: taxes and death. Back to this essay – the whole premise is the need for our right to end our lives at a time of our choosing. By no means is Pratchett saying anyone can do it, he highlights a need for controls, a panel of independent people of a professional nature to help ensure the system is not abused. That said, there are a number of countries where assisted dying is totally legal, and there is no evidence of coercion.

And on this very point, I am inclined to agree. Put in place controls to eliminate abuses, but by all means – if someone is suffering, terminally ill, allow them, with the help of a medical professional, to pass on comfortably and peacefully. Let them go, knowing it is their choice of time and place, surrounded by those most dear, somewhere they are happy. Surely this is better for those left behind, too? Given a choice, I would far rather hold those closest to me, be near them as they move on in comfort and happiness than watch them move slowly and painfully towards the door. Many people have strong feelings on this, so by no stretch do I mean to impose my views. With on moral or religious grounds, everyone is entitled, and in this case, encouraged to have their opinion. But surely irrespective of our views, every single individual living person on this planet should have the option and the right to chose. You can chose to go on living, but it is your choice. Not that of a government or law makers.

And let’s be honest, a large number of us take life for granted. But if we knew we could choose our time if we could, choose our place to leave the mortal realm, wouldn’t we all live every day just a little bit harder, better, more fully?

I will sign off with this quote from Terry Pratchett that I think sums this up.

 “ I dare say that quite a few people have contemplated death for reasons that much later seemed to them to be quite minor. If we are to live in a world where a socially acceptable “early death” can be allowed, it must be allowed as a result of careful consideration.

Let us consider me as a test case. As I have said, I would like to die peacefully with Thomas Tallis on my iPod before the disease takes me over and I hope that will not be for quite some time to come, because if I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice.”

I would love to see all sides of the debate on this topic – it is one close to my heart of late, and is something I have strong views on. I would love to know the choice was my own to make should the course of my life take an unfortunate turn. And equally, I would like to know my nearest and dearest would be safe from any recriminations for helping me. Likewise, if I could, I would willingly pass the glass of water, or push the syringe if it was asked of me. Not without a heavy heart, I admit, but with a sense of justice, compassion and love.

Where do you all sit on this debate? Please comment below, but keep it pleasant and respectful to all others!

My rating:

8 thoughts on “Shaking Hands with Death – Terry Pratchett

    1. Well said Dean. Choice should be the major factor here. Many have religious, personal and moral grounds for saying no to this. But there are also a vast number of us who would chose yes in a heartbeat. To know when we will go and make every remaining day the best we can.


  1. I saw the lecture when it was first broadcast, at that time I agreed with STP. Shortly afterward I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I spoke to my family and put my views forward, basically the same as Terry. Luckily I was found to have a cancer that was treatable and live a fairly normal life. This made me realise how precious life is and as long as my condition doesn’t deteriorate I will stick with it. I also have a friend who recently lost her father under much the same circumstances as Terry. Her religious faith was a stumbling block to even considering assisted death, even had it been legal. In any discussion we must remember that those people will be a major block to any legislation. Thou shalt not is still a byword among many religions and sects. I suppose it comes down to ” I don’t know”.


    1. Hi John. I have seen family members going through terminal illness and am watching it happen at present. I agree that religion will have a big role in any future legislation. In my view this is where the right to chose comes in-if it is in conflict with your beliefs you have the right to chose life. If you are of sound mind, you have the right to chose a dignified painless end.

      On a side note-I am very pleased to hear your condition is treatable and allowing you a relatively normal life. Life truely is precious, but often we miss that fact until we have a brush with death.


  2. I think you probably will have guessed my opinion on this – complete agreement with you, there is nothing more soul destroying than watching someone you love die slowly and in pain especially when they themself have had enough, we would not allow animals to go like this so why do we insist on humans having to it does not make sense and is so cruel, I read a book many years ago by an author Nevile Shute, which dealt with this subject in an end of world scenario dealing with nuclear war and radiation sickness etc and everyone being given a suicide pill what an excellent idea!


    1. It would be something would need many strict controls to eliminate coercion or bias in the decision, screening for mental capacity to make such a decision all before independant medical consultation to ensure it is the best option for the individual.


      1. I have to admit, I don’t necessarily LIKE the idea of assisted dying. But I’ve come to the conclusion that legislation allowing it is vital.

        As a result of being a Terry Pratchett fan.

        This is a choice.

        Thank you for writing this piece, Steve.

        It only heightens an important point … 


      2. I can fully understand that many won’t like the idea. Equally many may want to chose. Where possible lawmakers need to remove religion and moral beliefs aside so that any individual has the option to decide for themselves based purely upon their own beliefs. Thanks for your thoughts Paul. It certainly needs more debate-too often it is seen as taboo to discuss.


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