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Dying to be on the box

Corpses are the new stars in TV documentaries.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Politics

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People are dying to be on TV. Channel 4 is filming terminal patients – to ‘bring the subject to a wider audience’, Hamish Mykura, head of history, science and religion, told me. Another executive at the channel apologised when I asked for the date that it will air: ‘The TX date is unknown for this series, I’m afraid.’ The ‘TX date’ is industry jargon for transmission date. They don’t know when their subjects will pass away, so are not sure when the films will be finished, but ‘guess’ it will be early 2006.

Producers at Channel 4 seem to be obsessed with death. This week they are screening a four-part series, Autopsy. They have already aired Anatomy for Beginners; the series Death showed a death rattle; Jonny Kennedy’s corpse was filmed in The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off. Coming soon is The Anatomy of Death, which examines diseased and healthy organs.

The justification for such gross morbidity is, according to Mykura, that ‘Death is hidden in society’. ‘We used to be much more accepting of it.’ And he argues that ‘breaking that taboo will make us less afraid’.

In one respect he is right: death is less evident. But rather than bring it back we should celebrate this fantastic development. The twentieth century saw radical changes in death’s visibility. Improvements in public health meant that the once permanent shadow of the Grim Reaper was banished. Plagues do not descend randomly; most children survive childhood and grow up without losing their siblings. Mothers don’t die during childbirth and fathers get the chance to grow old.

We are wrong not to appreciate this transformation. Back in 1899, an article in the Fortnightly Review noted ‘The practical disappearance of the thought of death as an influence bearing directly upon life’. The author celebrated this progress: ‘The fear of death is being replaced by the joy of life’, he trumpeted, ‘full life is here and now is the demand’.

There is a morbid nostalgia in the desire to draw death back into our everyday lives. We have more to be joyful about in the twenty-first century. But while we are healthier for longer, we are fixated with mortality.

Far from death being shrouded, there is a deluge of graphic appearances of death and dying in the media. Channel 4 is not the only culprit. Real deaths have been shown again and again: CCTV footage of a death in police custody was broadcast on BBC1’s Death on Camera. The same channel showed the death of Herbie, a man who had terminal cancer, in The End of Life. This year BBC2 will screen How to Have a Good Death, fronted by Esther Rantzen, which will show the end of people’s lives in hospital.

Our culture seems to search death out. This grizzly gaze invades private and intimate experiences, trying to grasp at something shocking in the tired quest to be controversial.

Hamish Mykura argues that Channel 4’s work will be more than just a shock show. He says that the channel wants to encourage ‘more acceptance of death as part of life’. But the view that this sort of programme makes it easier for us to come to terms with our mortality is deeply flawed. There is always going to be a fear of death – as it is the absolute negation of life. As long as we value living, we will not desire death. But Channel 4 seems to want us to go gently into the night, while it watches. But fighting against death, for a longer and better life, is a good thing.

What is more, the nature of this investigation pioneered by Channel 4 could make our fear more intense. The elevation of the spectacle of the corpse demonstrates the sick nature of this kind of enquiry.

Channel 4 thinks it has found a volunteer for a new programme, Dust to Dust. ‘It is a project’, Mykura explains, ‘which takes a human body, places it in a small wooden mausoleum in the countryside and leaves it to decompose’. They will apparently film the ‘skin slipping off the body, the decaying; the maggot infestation and the bloating’.

Challenging material, Mykura grants, but he argues that it raises serious questions and that the channel can therefore ‘get away with it’. One question is: ‘does this simply reduce humans to matter? Are we just a piece of biologically rotting material?’ Unable to offer a contrary view, this so-called investigation seems to answer these questions in the affirmative.

Once portrait painters captured the stature and character of individuals; now programme makers concentrate on blood clots and entrails. The focus on decaying bodies dwells on the least human aspect of who and what we are. The filming of rotting flesh will not
help people come to terms with the loss of loved ones or their future demise. It will only turn our stomachs and worry us as we age. Coming to terms with the end of life requires a far more profound appreciation of what it is to be human than Dust to Dust could ever offer.

Our culture is ambivalent about the purpose of life and what achievements could bestow immortality. It’s not obvious how we remember people and give their life significance.

Research conducted into the scattering of cremated remains (the most common means of disposal) shows a dramatic increase in privatised rituals, such as placing the remains in what was a special place for that person. This reflects a real problem of how we collectively appreciate past lives.

What is missing today is not information about decomposition, but an understanding of how our private loss has public meaning. This will not be solved by television, but in society. Filming last moments will not contribute to a necessary conversation about the purpose of life and how we mark its value. Dwelling and wallowing in decay will only nurture a reductive corporal conception of human beings. So if you find yourself watching a programme that looks a lot like a snuff film, it might be better to switch it off.

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Topics Politics

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