It was recently reported by the Guardian that there has been drop in organ donation rates in the UK.[i] It was also reported at about the same time that a woman successfully argued in the courts that her mother’s last will and testament should be over-ridden so that she might receive a bequest that her mother never wanted her to have.[ii] In different ways, in each of these stories the intentions of the living with respect to their own death come into tension with how those intentions are realised by those who are left behind.
Midcentury comedian Bobby Thompson played a character called the Little Waster, an anti-hero of working-class life in the 60s and 70s in north-east England, who captures the essence of the problem clearer than most in one of his tales. He is in his usual position, propping up a bar and wondering about how he is going to pay for his next drink and packet of cigarettes. A man comes up to the bar that he recognises as the local undertaker. The Little Waster thinks for a moment and then asks him, “How much are you going to charge our lass for my coffin?” The undertaker weighs him up and down and comes up with the figure of £10. The Little Waster, seizing his chance, replies, “Well giv’ us two pound and charge our lass twelve”.
At the time this joke was told, occupations and lifestyles determined that men typically died long before their wives. The waster knows this and also knows that his wife—referred to as ‘our lass’—is entrapped in the unavoidable obligations of kinship.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.