At first glance, there was something utterly incongruous about the relationship of The Famous Spiegeltent - all flowing fabrics and dark wood panelling - and the panelists of Friday's ‘Embracing Death’ edition of the tantalizingly-titled Verb Garden: The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. The setting, like the panel series' title, suggested the decadent, the burlesque, the taboo. The unassumingly-dressed, middle-aged panelists - headed up by Dr. Richard Smith and including physicians Colin Currie, Mary Gillies and chair John Gillies, comedian Arthur Smith and documentary filmmaker Amy Hardie - hardly appeared transgressive. But as the panelists began to discuss the day's theme - the problem of ‘dying well’ and its relationship to contemporary Western society's approach to end-of-life care - their words soon felt more ‘dangerous,’ more taboo-breaking, than any cabaret.
We've all lost touch with death, Richard Smith argued, quoting a colleague's bitter appraisal that “in California, death is optional." We devote our time and energy to staving off the inevitable as long as possible, denying its reality up until the very last moment. Modern medicine, according to Smith, may allow us to live longer lives, but at the cost of our ability to contend authentically with the problem of our own mortality. Again and again, the panelists reminded us that we could "go" at any moment, asking tellingly uncomfortable questions of their audience (how would you like to die - suddenly or over a prolonged period? Burial or cremation?) They - with the exception of Arthur Smith, providing a measure of tension-breaking black humour - remained perfectly serious, perfectly calm; their approach to death is matter-of-fact - even that of Dr. Mary Gillies, whose personal battle with cancer humanizes the panel's abstractions. Yet the squirming response of some members of the audience to such a topic only proves Richard's point: The truth about what awaits us all is one we'd much rather forget.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the composition of the panel (and audience members), much of the discussion around the problem of "embracing death" centered around the role of doctors: How and when to speak to dying patients, how to approach end-of-life-care, the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on doctors' approach to treating patients in their final years or days. Such a focus at times seemed overly narrow: Questions about wider cultural issues, and particularly about the role of religious faith, were sometimes mentioned only as afterthoughts, and a more diverse approach to the question of death would have allowed for some welcome complexity (and divergence of opinion). But, at its core, this edition of the Spiegeltent's unassuming afternoon discussion series more than lived up to its grand promise: to navigate ideas that felt truly ‘dangerous.’