When I was 18, I went with my sister to see our uncle in a place that was then called St Joseph's Hospice for the Dying, in east London. It's an uncompromising name and we were nervous, not relishing the prospect of witnessing terrible terminal agonies at close quarters. But we were very fond of him and we braved it.
We came away laughing at his unquenchable optimism. He was a great correspondent and so comfortable did he feel in that place that he had ordered writing paper headed with his current address - although, it did leave out the words "for the Dying".
All the same, there is comfort in the thought that at least hospices know how to handle the business of dying, to make it less terrifying. That presumption is one of the reasons why reports of a recent court case were so disturbing. As the result of a failed suicide pact that had left him, reluctantly, alive, Brian Blackburn had killed his wife, Margaret. The 62-year-old retired policeman from Ash in Surrey said that Margaret, also 62, had begged him to do it. It was "the most loving thing I could do for her". A post-mortem discovered advanced stomach cancer but "she did not seek medical help because she had worked in a hospice". For those who advocate euthanasia this proved a useful argument: if a woman in the know preferred assisted suicide to palliative care, then clearly it should be legalised.
Read this article on The Tablet website (new window will open).