Book review: 'Where There's a Will'
When it comes to the inevitability of death, ignorance is very rarely bliss, both for those who die and for those who are left behind. All credit, then, to Michael Kerrigan for blowing the cobwebs from death's dusty measure in new tome Where's there's a Will, writes Sarah Stone.
Where There's a Will aims to address our cultural and social reluctance to talk about and plan for our deaths by guiding us gently through some of the innumerable issues it encompasses. As author Michael Kerrigan says in the preface, no book could embrace death in all its guises, and Where There’s a Will doesn’t try. Instead, it seeks to "acknowledge the myriad possibilities of mortality while at the same time trying to point out the common ground". This common ground includes end-of-life wishes, funerals, organ donation, wills and the increasingly pressing problem of what happens to your digital persona when you die.
While the book is billed as a 'practical guide to taking charge of your affairs', the focus is not entirely pragmatic, with passages on giving comfort to the dying and making sense of a death. It could be a dry read, it should be a depressing read, but it's not, peppered, as it is, with colourful anecdotes and intimate personal stories, famous quotes and poetry, and historical and cultural accounts of death. Among these are tales of those who have had the peculiar experience of reading their own obituaries; John Cleese's legendary eulogy at fellow Python Graham Chapman's memorial service; and a poem written by human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
This is very much a book for the lay public rather than the 'death academia ' or professionals, although both have significantly contributed. Throughout, whether discussing agnosticism in relation to the afterlife or tackling the thorny subject of assisted dying, Kerrigan's tone is carefully neutral and balanced. He doesn't seek to challenge our beliefs about death, rather to chivy us into considering it, full stop.
Where There's a Will aims to rob death of its 'destructive force' by helping us prepare for it thoughtfully, by facing it calmly and by carefully taking charge of our affairs. And it's when Kerrigan is urging us to seize the day before it seizes us that he is at his most compelling.
He writes: "For many, death’s cruellest torments are those arising from the helpless realisation that their personal and financial affairs are in disarray. That they’re departing life too late to take meaningful action, leaving their loved ones to deal not just with heartbreak, but with a major headache.
"We can make that task easy for them, or we can leave them with a tangled confusion to try to unravel, with all the distress (and perhaps the tension and bitterness) that this may entail."
While a supposition early on in the book that "few of us really want to die. In fact, in an ideal world, we’d live forever, if we had any say in the matter" is questionable (just 15% of people said they wanted to live forever in a Dying Matters poll last year; moreover, would anyone over the age of, say, 14, actually want to?), Kerrigan's dedication to improving our lot at the end of life isn't.
Win Where There's a Will
We have two copies of Where There's a Will up for grabs. For your chance to win, just answer the following question: 'Which human rights campaigner's poem features in Where's There's a Will?' Email your answer to email@example.com with the subject line 'Where's There's a Will'. Two winners will be picked at random and contacted by email. The draw closes at midnight, 31 May 2012. See our competition terms and conditions.
- 'Where's There's a Will' by Michael Kerrigan is published by Saraband on May 17 2012 to coincide with Dying Matters Awareness Week, RRP £9.99. Buy it it from Saraband.