The End

I have felt the keen challenge of a brilliant new dawn and the still contentment of a garden at twilight, been entranced by the kaleidoscopic life in a sparkling rockpool and embraced by the beauty of an ancient forest. I have joined the excitement of a bustling city and dreamed in the transcendent solitude of a mountain vista. I have experienced the timelessness of helpless laughter and the fulfilment of a lifetime of love.

These are enough to make anyone grasp for permanence, but wishes do not change reality, and luckily so. Eternity would crush all the joy from life, as transience is essential to its value.

I will not throw away my one chance by waiting for a mythical perfection to come. I will goad this procrastinating sloth to wring the most out of my time and when it is done I accept it will be the end.

And as for legacy, I am amused to think that I will continue for a generation or two in the memories of others. The readers will sometimes ponder the author. One quarter of my genes will slowly be diluted further by my grandchildren and the molecules borrowed by my body will be shared throughout the world and beyond.

Eventually even the universe will end. It is now that matters.

I remember the moment when I realised that I was going to die. As a life-long atheist, I was aware that my existence was finite but, when I was around the age of ten, I comprehended the prospect of my own annihilation for the first time. The idea of death as a negation, a state of unbeing, became suddenly clear.

At the time, I was momentarily struck by paralysing fear and an urge to shrink away, to deny the reality of my mortality. I have regularly revisited that thought since and, although the fear has lessened with time and maturity, the idea of my death still has the ability to stun me. My fear of death is a fear of incapacity; of absence; of an inability to think, feel, and act as I want. Some of these things may well be visited on me by old age, injury, or dementia. I fear that too.

Yet my awareness of, and engagement with, my mortality has had a profoundly beneficial impact on my life. My fiancé’s parents believe in an afterlife and have asked me, with some curiosity, about my lack of belief in life after death. My slightly glib response was that mortality is a good motivator.

My awareness that I have one life, that every waking moment is precious and gone in an instant, gives me focus. I pour as much time and effort as I can into the things that matter most to me: family, friendships, and relationships; writing, reading, and music; and supporting causes that make a positive difference in the world. I want to make my finite life as meaningful and as packed-full with pleasure and personal achievement as I can, because it’s all I have.

A great hero of mine, Michel de Montaigne, wrote that perhaps all the wisdom in the world ultimately teaches us one thing: not to be afraid of dying. Once you lose that fear, he said, you can get on with life.

Thankfully, I lost that fear very early in life. My father died when I was a baby and consequently, although I had no emotional connection to him, there has always been a father-shaped hole in my life. It meant I understood from an early age about someone being – in those smiley photographs on his ship, and in the anecdotes told by those who knew him – and then not being. Visiting the very spot in Teignmouth where he drowned, by then a father myself, is probably the most emotionally powerful experience in my life – because it rammed home how arbitrary is the line between life and death.

Having no fear of death means that I can put all my energy into what really matters – making the most of life and helping others to try and do the same. That sounds virtuous, but if we have that mindset it helps retain our optimism – and that can brush off on others. Wherever possible, we can turn that into practical help too.

If Covid has taught me anything, it is that I have taken the simple things in life for granted, especially carefree social interaction with others. Perhaps the pandemic is also breaking the taboo of talking about death. I want to use that to help others to lose the fear and get on with life, like the man said.

My mother has had cancer twice and thankfully survived both episodes of illness, but we live with the shadow that it may return. This has brought my awareness of our relationship to a different and sometimes complex emotional place. My father/s and other relatives have equally been treated for cancer in alarming numbers. So, whilst Covid-19 has cast a shadow of fear of death globally, these realities have already played out for me and my family several times.

My brother-in-law currently has a terminal diagnosis of cancer and is living his remaining days in excruciating pain. We are only three months apart in age. As someone contemplating that I have at 45 likely lived over half my life, I can’t help but feel fortunate, whilst younger relatives and increasingly friends of my generation have since passed away. A close friend once told me aging is a privilege, having lost her own father suddenly in his forties. Years of indiscriminate loss of life around me has brought my mortality very much to the fore of my mind. Having had brushes with death, it has been survivor guilt that threatened to overwhelm me rather than fear of death itself. My hope is to have choice and dignity when it eventually comes for me.

Yet as a humanist I cherish life, love deeply, and endeavour to notice the seasons change, watch the sun set, and be here mindfully, now, without regrets. Life frequently challenges my philosophical efforts and I get distracted with stresses that in time I know will seem insignificant. I have spoken with my spouse and a few close relatives about our mortality and we have shared our wishes for the dealings of each of our deaths. In the meantime, I live each day reminding myself this life is truly spectacular.


As a confirmed humanist, I understand that when my body finally decides that enough is enough there will be no pearly gates; no paradise; no reunion with my loved ones long gone. That said, I must admit to a degree of envy of those who do believe that their end is not the end. How comforting that must be. However, for those of us who live in the real world, we must plan for the inevitable.

I have tried to live my life according to my humanist principles and so was thrilled when I found a way to extend those principles beyond the grave. When I die, my body will be whisked off to a designated medical school to be used for anatomical examination. How great to be able to contribute to medical knowledge for the benefit of mankind even in death. For me, death is about legacy – what we leave behind.

Life is about love, and death is about legacy. But how to combine the two?

Many years ago I took my lunch on a park bench that had carved into the backrest some words that have since provided me with the courage to face my inevitable death:

‘To live on in the hearts of those that love you is not to die.’

I am blessed with a loving, supportive family who, I know, will always remember me with a deep love and affection. Moreover, I have no doubt that our daughters and grandchildren will continue long after our deaths to adopt the humanist values that my wife and I hold dear.

If that is my legacy, I will die a contented man.

In my late sixties, a routine blood test gave an off the scale reading. I knew I’d got a problem. The consultant confirmed the worst.

‘Is this going to kill me?’ I asked.

He didn’t mince words. ‘Most certainly it will’

Dozens of appointments and treatments followed and a lot of thinking. I decided to confront, not deny, to be happy, not miserable, and to use every minute.

For me, the issue has three parts.

One: That I’ll be dead. I really do believe it will be just like it was before I was born. So being dead holds no fears.

Two: The potential pain, indignity and distress of dying. I have always supported campaigns for assisted dying. Now I have even more reason to. I have spent time researching how I might protect myself and have taken what steps I can.

Three: The frustration of leaving the party while I’m still enjoying myself. I don’t begrudge others the fun they’ll have when I’ve gone, but I could be fed up thinking of all the happiness I’ll miss – my family and friends, especially the grandchildren growing up, the countryside, music, good beer, hot buttered toast and other pleasures of the flesh! So, I set about squeezing maximum enjoyment into what time there is – seeing more of the family, walking every day, exploring Wagner’s operas, drinking more beer, and the rest.

Postscript: My initial prognosis was two to three years. I’ve been spectacularly lucky. Things were not quite so bad – one important diagnostic parameter was atypical and deceptive. My salary package included health insurance which paid for an expensive, unproven but promising treatment not available on the NHS. Now, four years from diagnosis, I’m almost completely without symptoms and enjoying life – perhaps more even than I did before!

I have not found peace with the idea of dying that some other people have. I am ‘raging against the dying of the light’.

Perhaps more than anything I want to see what happens next, to humanity and the natural world. Will humankind pull back from the brink and stop terrible loss of human and animal life due to climate change, the destruction of most forests and ocean wildlife, all caused by humans? Will all humanity slowly and painfully migrate towards democracy and welfare states and human-rights, such as we have had in the West, or will hierarchies always dominate most of our societies, with all the wealth and power at the top, and most people in poverty and treated cruelly? They are stories I want to know the end to.

I want to see what happens to my children and my nephews and nieces, but maybe if the endings are going to be sad it is better if I don’t know.

I still want to do lots of things. One of the things I would most like to do is to make my painting and other artwork as good as it can be, to fulfil my potential. It is said that to fully achieve one’s full ability in any creative activity one needs 10,000 hours – that is 3 hours a day, 7 days per week, for 10 years. I know that I will probably never reach that, but I won’t die happy until I have gone a long way down that road.

I know in my head that my little bit of consciousness will one day be snuffed out, but I’m not ready yet. I want to grow into my eighties or nineties, and do more of the things that I have for so long wanted to do.

My Mortality is like the mirage-image ship above the horizon: it is not approaching, but it won’t vanish. One day, I may sense that it is nearing, but until then I won’t give it much thought.

Today, the weather-doll Life is out in the open, while Mortality has gone indoors. I’ve been enjoying a blackbird on the chimney, seeds sprouting in the cold-frame, the sounds of Bach and gutsy gusts. Seizing the day means that I’ll work, walk, write.

Humans, like a coral reef, are composed of infinitesimal cellular bodies of different shapes and sizes, beautiful and multi-coloured when alive, but white when dead. I’ll opt for the colour version while I can.

Still, I shall look forward to my final examination. Will I do? When I have no blood left to give, they can take away my body. The medical students who probe and explore will marvel, not at my wasted shape, but at the intricacies of the human body and its thirty-seven or so trillion cells. Until that day, I’ll carry on marvelling at Life.

My nana (a key figure in my life) died when I was 13 and I found myself thinking about ‘heaven’ – a place people talked about to reassure me. I found it disconcerting and uncomfortable, imagining this strange place where I could look down on the people I had loved and left but being unable to let them know I was okay and out of pain. People tried to comfort me by saying I would not be bothered by this loss, because this was heaven and all earthly worries would fade. I found this even more horrific! All my care, and love, and free will removed from me so I didn’t feel? I wanted nothing to do with it!

Looking back at 13 year-old me, I recognise the start of me really understanding what it meant to be human, and this eventually led me to appreciate living now rather than for an afterlife. I only have the moments I stand up and can choose to be kind, curious, passionate, joyful, as well as sad, angry, anxious and all the other amazing gifts of being human in these moments. After death, I lose those gifts: I will not feel, as I am not here, but I find comfort in knowing those gifts will be enjoyed by others and some of their gifts might even be connected to me and my actions. Having no ‘heaven’ means using my gifts now, living, feeling and maybe even improving some moments for other people. At 55, I know I have fewer moments ahead than those behind me, and I can use my gifts to treasure them all – regrets as well as accomplishments – then at the end of my life I release them, glad to have lived them.

Two days after my 56th birthday, without any warning at all, I was floored by pains in my chest. Without hesitation, my husband took me to A&E who swiftly declared I was having a heart attack. I had not been ill, not at all. That day I’d walked in the sunshine, had a chicken in the oven, washing on the line. It was January and the day was clear and blue. I had been reading quietly whilst the chicken roasted when the pain gripped me at 2.00pm. By 3:30 pm I had had a stent inserted in an artery by an extraordinary team of professionals and was being wheeled back to the ward. My husband was standing there holding my jacket and shoes, pensive, concerned, and reached out and took my hand.

In two months of recovery I had a lot of time to reflect. I was told that due to the quick actions of my husband I had no lasting heart damage – this is good! I was also told that I had a congenital heart defect that had only emerged now in middle age, so that was good to know! By holding onto the science, I gradually emerged from the emotional gloom and let go of the fear. And by absorbing the love of all those around me, I climbed back to health.

Science matters, love matters, and how we live our lives matters. Death will come to me one day, of course. But until it does I am going to carry on living my life openly, fully, and lovingly, believing this is the best legacy I can leave about me to those who I love who will live life beyond me.

Mortality – that’s a tricky one. I find it difficult enough to think about a lovely summer’s day in the depths of winter, or vice versa, without trying to envisage something of which I can have no experience, at first or second hand. The only tool I have for tackling my own mortality is my imagination, which is not helpful, as it inevitably dwells on the awful ways I could die rather than the fact of dying. Like many people, I like the idea of quitting the party while it’s still going on, quickly and without warning. But that is so not good for the people left behind.

Sudden death is a physical as well as an emotional shock. And it’s messy. Even the most prepared people won’t have thought of everything and may not have updated their will or their funeral wishes very recently. That can be difficult enough to cope with, but the worst thing is not being able to say goodbye.

A ‘good death’ allows for that. Beyond making sure the important people have your computer and email passwords, there may be the doing of the as yet undone, the mending of relationships, the reallocating of priorities, the saying of things not yet said. It may be preparing loved ones for a life without you, or it may simply be creating or stashing away a store of good memories that will provide sustenance in the dark days to come.

I hope I will be lucky and brave enough to have a good death.

Phil on Death

When did you first meet?

I first met Death when I was ten years old living in a boarding school. My grandmother and uncle died around the same time. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funerals. I became very depressed and it led me into an uncomfortable preoccupation with Death, which lasted for years.

When did you become friends?

I studied evolutionary theory at university and it is really through this that I recognised Life and Death as two great forces that drove creativity and change. They were both essential, and both responsible, for love, diversity and beauty.

What do you like most about Death?

As an artist I can’t help but be in awe of the power of death, the mystery and even the glamour. It can also be a motivation for exceptional behaviours, for creating and expressing life. Exquisite really…

What do you least like about Death?

I am still scared of Death. Of course I am. I can’t quite bring myself to accept Death. I hope that my ideas and actions live on, at least for a little while, in the memories of others.

Then finally, as my body balances on the cusp of nothingness, I will look back and know that I loved and cherished life. I think that will be my comfort.