The stories we are told as children make a difference: are other people basically kind or competitive? Is everybody beautiful or am I never good enough? Is death friend or enemy? I was told from an early age that while I would probably live to old age, I might get run over by a bus so I should value each day.

My parents were Christians but they didn’t worry about death and they didn’t believe in hell. The focus was all on how to live this life.

So, that’s cool. I have always known that death waits at the end of the road and sometimes nips up on you like a joker. Friend then, rather than foe. My nonchalance ended when my 92-year-old mother became very ill and entered a nursing home. She is lonely and confused. I am sometimes overwhelmed by sadness at what her life has become, and I fear it for myself. It is fear of dying rather than death – I know death is the end of consciousness and a welcome relief for an old body – but they are imaginatively connected. If dying means losing freedom and control, it sounds like being dead but alive enough to experience it, which is scary!

I aspire to grow old as Bertrand Russell advised: like a river which flows more quietly and eventually merges into the sea, not lost, just dispersed. We all influence and change each others’ lives in an endless evolution. Our moment passes but future generations stand on our shoulders. I hope the values I hold in life will serve me in dying – thinking of others as well as myself, making myself busy with lovely or helpful things, not off-loading too much on others – though at the age of 60 I still need lots of practice!

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 started to think about my mortality when my children were quite small, and it was largely a negative feeling, that my children needed me to be around for them, that it would be awful for them if their mother died while they were still so young. It was some years later when I felt that I could die now and my children would manage without me. It was a huge relief to know they were independent individuals who had developed their own identities.

When I was in my early 50s my husband died very suddenly; he killed himself after leaving a note saying he couldn’t cope. Early in my bereavement I felt I had no future, but despite the grief and shock I knew also that I wanted to live my own life to the full. I made positive changes in my work (becoming freelance) and in my lifestyle (giving up smoking) to ensure I was in the best possible place to enjoy the life I had in front of me. I’ve always embraced change, enjoyed making decisions and being in control of my own life.

Now I’m in my early 70s, and I think about my own death more often. I’m amazed to have lasted this long, as my father died when he was the same age I am now. I still want to pack in as much life as I can – I want to see my grandchildren grow up, and to continue to be healthy, active, constantly learning, and politically engaged. I want to be able to choose the timing of my painless, peaceful death and I’ve written my wishes for my funeral. Then, my only wish is that I am remembered by those who love me.

I have enjoyed the comfort and thrills of experiencing life with a loving partner for more years than I have without him. I have lived a life of love and fulfilment, of academic and career successes, with many joys and challenges, including raising a beautiful daughter. There’s still more to come, I hope – a new business venture, my daughter’s successes and even retirement in India (maybe). But I wouldn’t want to live forever. The certainty of death is my friend. A friend who helps me lead a good life, helps me to laugh and cry, to love, to take a risk, motivates me to be brave and say yes to experiences whilst I can.

As a child, I was reflective, gentle, and artistic. I was a dreamer and at one with nature – rational and unafraid of dying. I couldn’t remember being unborn, so I convinced myself I wouldn’t remember being dead. I reasoned that when the time comes, it will be okay to go back to the earth and allow other organisms to live through me. These thoughts from a young child may have been naïve, and admittedly they have become more challenging to maintain as an adult. It is painful to think of my loved ones in grief and I worry about the challenges they will face as they inherit this messy planet. I hope I will live through them as they inherit my behaviours and traits – hopefully the good ones! I am certain my legacy will be remembered through them, so I’m trying to make good memories and to tread lightly on this earth for the fleeting time I am lucky enough to be here.

My mother and my grandmother both dropped dead – out of the blue – apparently well and happy one minute, and dead the next. I am now 10 years older than my mother was when she died, and twenty years older than my grandmother. I have regularly taken funerals for people much younger than me and have recently been treated for cancer.

You might think I should be well aware of my mortality. But I am not yet living my life as if I know my days were limited. If I have any fears it is that I will die too late – after the ‘me’ that I know and care about is long gone. I am thinking now of the woman with dementia who could scream and cry for days on end. Death can be a friend that keeps away for too long.

Recently, I was meeting with a woman, diagnosed thirty years ago with cancer, who set out making happy memories for her children who were then quite young, and trying to ensure that they would be strong and independent for when she was no longer here. Thirty years on, with a life full of happy memories and now terminally ill, her awareness and acceptance of the imminence of death made her determined to enjoy every single minute she had left. Her life was so rich for it. Looking at a tree was blissful.

So I questioned myself: am I living as if I actually believed my days were limited? Is doing ‘life housekeeping’ – preparing for being dead – enough? The answer was clearly no, on both counts. So, I asked myself, if I knew for sure that I had a matter of weeks or months left, how would I be fully savouring my gift of life? And I am currently working on this.


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.

During my life I have been very fortunate, in that I have experienced and am experiencing many wonderful things, including great love. I have visited beautiful and interesting places, but have also had difficult times due to family illness. I derive great pleasure in talking to people from different cultures. These things all give perspective to life.

Being out in nature is important to me; I experience great pleasure in just looking at a tree, a river or a flower, or in seeing birds and animals. These vary so much depending on the light, the time of year and the situation.

My own mortality has only passed through my mind occasionally, though in a few weeks’ time I shall be the same age as my mother when she died. This fact is making me pause to reflect. As with many people getting older, I do have a fear of dementia. I really enjoy puzzles and games, especially with the thought that this may help to keep my brain functioning satisfactorily.

As a humanist, I believe that we have one life so must make the most of it and appreciate it to the full. We live on in the memories of other people, especially our family and friends.

I would like to have means to end my life if it becomes intolerable. Having that ability would, I think, be reassuring. I also fear not being able to action this myself. I have experienced three elderly relatives who, near the end wished their lives to end.

Being older also gives me the opportunity to reflect and focus on what is important to me in life and to savour it.

Thoughts About My Own Mortality

It’s been a huge relief to find my home in humanism. No more myths and legends masquerading as truth. No more just going along with what others think, taking the easy way. No more avoiding the big issues. A Damascus Road experience in reverse.

So now, when I come to think of my own mortality, there’s no reckoning, no divine judgment, no heaven, no hell, no purgatory, no future, no reuniting, no passing, no better place. Just nothing.

I will leave a fading, once bright, imprint on others who knew me. Maybe that will last a couple of generations. I hope I’ll be remembered fondly. I think I will. I’ve done my best to achieve that.

That’s fine. I’ll settle for that.

I’ve been lucky so far. A good, long, and healthy life. I must make the very most of what’s left. I’m unique. No one can do it like me. I’ve got things to join in. Things I can’t join in. Others to think of. Challenges to meet. Experiences to enjoy. Time alone to reflect. People to love. Plenty to think about. Highlights and dark times. That’s life. I must get on with it.

Attitude to Death 

As a 72 year old who’s highly vulnerable to COVID infection, I’ve had good reason to consider my mortality recently, and while I may claim not to fear death, I do fear dying alone on the ITU, away from my family.

In more normal times I suppose I view death as something to be postponed as long as possible, but because I can’t choose when to go, I have to (cliché alert) live each day as if it was my last. And I’m lucky – I have a good life, with a lovely family, a comfortable pension and reasonable state of health. This affords me the luxury of concentrating on the here and now and making what’s left of my life a good one, in line with my humanist principles. But it’s easy to imagine circumstances where that might not have been the case, and where I would now be viewing death as a release.

Of course, if I get time to prepare for death, rather than going under the wheels of a bus, there will be regrets at the stuff I’m going to miss as my children and grandchildren’s lives unfold, but I hope there will be some good memories for those who survive me. While I find it odd (doesn’t everyone?) to imagine the world going on without me, I remember that in a few billion years the sun will become a red giant and engulf the earth, so in the great scheme of things, mine is just one little life and my death will be equally inconsequential. From stardust we come, and to stardust we return, and while religious folk may find that a bleak outlook, I would rather rejoice while I can at the wonderful improbability of my brief existence.

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 sometimes think about death, and my own death in particular. While I remain conscious it will always be ‘now’ for me, and so I will never experience that state of not being alive. What will that last moment of ‘now’ be like?

At times I almost rejoice at the idea that on my death I will merge with everything in the universe and be part of it.

And I often consider that as long as another human, any human, knows the joy that I have myself experienced, then that would be enough for me, and I will be satisfied with my life. I just regret that my own great projects will remain unfinished, and that I won’t know what happens.

I hope to leave my affairs in order and to dispose of many possessions well in advance. I also hope that if the need arises, I will be able to access assisted dying in this country.

In the meanwhile, my desire and aim is to give an unhindered flow of love and goodness for as long as is possible.

The French philosopher Auguste Comte is a neglected pioneer of humanism. His much-derided ‘Religion of Humanity’ was a bold attempt to describe how men and women in a post-religious age might transcend their egoistic interests in order to serve the common good. His idea was that we should devote ourselves to the growing good of ‘Humanity’ which both precedes and succeeds our individual lives. This idea found expression in George Eliot’s memorable poem ‘The Choir Invisible’:

“Oh, may I join the choir invisible

Of those immortal dead who live again

In minds made better by their presence; live

In pulses stirred to generosity…”

Through memory, artefacts, and affection, I feel keenly the presence of deceased parents and friends whose well-lived lives continue to enrich my own. My task in turn is to live well and leave some imprint of goodness in the world, however small or seemingly insignificant.