Assisted dying is now a lawful and integral component of many societies ‘death system’, orienting individual and collective encounters with death and dying. While only a very small number of people living with terminal illness in these societies will opt for an assisted death, the choice, nevertheless, exists for those who satisfy the legal criteria. Theoretically, in these jurisdictions, this turns dying into an optional part of the human life cycle; a final phase of life that, until now, seemed a universal feature of life except in instances of sudden death. As anthropologists specialising in death and dying, we pose the question of how the various cultural scripts that have sought to give meaning to dying in post-industrial Western societies since the mid-20th century might be affected by the advent of assisted dying. We begin by building on both medical and social science literature to construct a working definition of ‘dying’. We then identify four dominant cultural scripts: psychological growth, preparation for death, the suffering experience and the caring experience. After outlining each script, we discuss how it may (or may not) be affected by the increase in assisted dying legislation. We propose that it is the ‘caring’ script; the notion of affective, intergenerational bonds created through the experience of caring for people specifically in the last few months or weeks of their life, which are likely to be most affected. However, we find that access to these cultural scripts is already limited because of the widespread reluctance to recognise and name ‘dying’, and the challenges of doing so. Consequently, the various cultural scripts we identify are negated not by the increase in assisted dying, but rather by a combination of medical advances and institutional orthodoxies which limit opportunity for people to experience themselves, or others, as ‘dying’.
- social anthropology
- end of life care
- palliative care
- medical humanities
- philosophy of medicine/health care
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Twitter @DrNaomiRichards, @MTKrawczyk_42
Contributors NR and MR co-conceived the theoretical ideas outlined in the article and wrote and co-edited the article.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent for publication Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data availability statement There are no data in this work.