7 min read

Rediscovering 'ordinary dying'

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.


On the eve of her Theos annual lecture on 'Death for Beginners', Robert Wright speaks to former palliative care consultant Kathryn Mannix about the need for everyone to re-engage with the process of dying. Part of the Seen & Unseen How to Die Well series.
A woman stands in an autumnal-looking park, with her hands in her pockets
Katherine Mannix.

Shortly after the late Queen Elizabeth died, in September last year, Kathryn Mannix, a former palliative care doctor, decided to point out something that had been going unremarked. Mannix, who spent 30 years in various palliative care roles in the North of England until retiring in 2016, wrote on the social media platform then called Twitter that the world had watched the late monarch live through a process that she called “ordinary” dying. But, she added, the dying had gone “unspoken, un-named”. 

Mannix’s 12-post thread pointing out what the world had been watching was to prove one of the most successful steps yet in her long-running campaign to refamiliarise the world with how people die, the signs that someone is dying and how the process works. The thread has been viewed several million times. Among the replies to her post, according to Mannix, were several from people saying they recognised from it that relatives were going through the process and they should prepare. 

Mannix hopes that her efforts will ensure people learn to cope better with their own and others’ inevitable deaths in ways that work better both medically and emotionally. 

“The queen’s death was no surprise to those of us who have been watching that process that we recognise as ordinary dying,” Mannix says, in an interview over lunch in Newcastle, near her Northumbria home. 

“The person got into hospital to have treatment to stop them from dying. When they died, that was a medical failure. That was an embarrassment.” 

Mannix will take another substantial step in her campaign on November 1 when she delivers the annual lecture for the religious think-tank Theos on Dying for Beginners. The lecture will revisit the lessons of her thread about the queen and two successful books about dying: With the End in Mind, recounting the lessons of her career in palliative care, and Listen, about finding the words for end-of-life conversations. All of her work has stressed the unhelpful aspects of medical practitioners’ increasing involvement in deaths. Doctors’ increasing power to prevent death in many circumstances and delay it in others has made it, in her view, damagingly unfamiliar. 

However, Mannix insists that, while the November 1 lecture has been organised by a faith-based think-tank, her principles are applicable whether people understand their lives through a spiritual prism or via something else like family, politics or art. 

“There are a number of constructs that give people meaning,” Mannix says. 

At the heart of Mannix’s message is the idea that death was once a familiar process that people knew how to manage. She argues that the last century’s medical advances changed that. 

“I think we’ve forgotten because over the course of the twentieth century life expectancies nearly doubled,” Mannix says. 

She points to a range of factors behind the shift, from improved sanitation and vaccination programmes to the founding in the UK of the National Health Service and the introduction of antibiotics. 

She dates the shift of dying from home to hospital to the second half of the twentieth century. 

“It was almost like dying was kidnapped inside hospitals then,” she says. “The process itself got slightly distorted by the medical interventions like intensive care units, so the process became less recognisable.” 

The key change, according to Mannix, was that death became “the enemy”. 

“The person got into hospital to have treatment to stop them from dying,” she says. “When they died, that was a medical failure. That was an embarrassment.” 

“It’s hard to have a conversation with a person who has no pegs to hang that conversation on. The current population has no idea about dying.”

Doctors started to keep in hospital people who would prefer to be at home with their grandchildren, in case there was one more thing they might try that would save their lives, Mannix says. 

“We need to celebrate that medicine can do so much more than it used to be able to do,” Mannix says. “But we need to remember that those achievements are only postponing dying. We’ve not cured death.” 

Clinicians need to recognise the point in illnesses where death becomes inevitable and speak to patients about their priorities for their remaining time, she adds. 

“Survival at all costs might not be what is most important to them,” Mannix says. “There may be things that they wish to fulfil.” 

Mannix is clear that the UK at least remains a long way from learning the lessons that she is trying to teach. She was prompted to write her thread about Queen Elizabeth’s death partly by the ending to a news bulletin announcing that the monarch’s family were rushing to her bedside at Balmoral. Mannix says the newsreader finished the segment, hours before the death was announced, by saying “Get well soon, ma’am.” She describes it as “a dreadful example of our death-denying”. 

She is giving the annual Theos lecture as the group is in the midst of releasing a suite of resources designed to provoke greater debate around death and dying. They include a video where Mannix explains the dying process. The group’s research paper Ashes to Ashes, published in March, showed that many British people had similar priorities for their own deaths and those of loved ones as set out in Mannix’s work. They wanted to be free of pain or suffering, surrounded by family, probably at home, to be reconciled to people and to be prepared. 

According to Mannix, however, even her fellow medical professionals feel poorly equipped to begin conversations with patients or their families about impending death. Many people had contacted her after reading With the End in Mind saying that they were convinced of the need for frank conversations about death but had no idea how to start them. 

“The feedback from doctors and nurses was the same as from the general public – ‘I don’t know how to talk about this bit’,” Mannix says. “’Nobody taught us about this in training’.” 

It is also a challenge for medical professionals that patients and their families are typically resistant to conversations about death, she adds. 

“The doctor doesn’t want to be the bad guy or girl and constraints in the NHS are such they can’t find time for the length of conversation that’s likely,” Mannix says, adding that many doctors are also unfamiliar with exactly how the dying process tends to unfold. 

“They’re not taught about dying,” Mannix says of trainee clinicians. “They’re not taught to see good dying as a good medical outcome and it could be.” 

Those conversations are all the harder, she adds, because society as a whole has so little conception of the process of death. 

“It’s hard to have a conversation with a person who has no pegs to hang that conversation on,” Mannix says. “The current population has no idea about dying.” 

In wider society, meanwhile, she would like to see far more communities taking the opportunity to support the dying. 

The questions fundamentally end up being spiritual or philosophical ones, Mannix says. She declines to be drawn on her own spiritual practices but describes herself as “spiritually curious”. She similarly declines to outline her position on the debate about assisted dying, saying that expressing a view on that would be a distraction from her primary purpose of promoting discussion of the ordinary dying process. 

But she says questions about how to manage death, whether to prolong life and the balance between quality and length of life inevitably raise “societal questions”. 

“We all want to think about our life being worth something and about the purpose that we think is the purpose of being alive,” Mannix says. 

Mannix hopes her campaign will prompt religious leaders to think more carefully about how they support families and dying people. In particular, she would like priests to acknowledge to those they are supporting that faith will not always banish fear and that the faithful will sometimes feel abandoned by God in the face of death. She would like to see far more thorough training for clergy throughout their careers in how to have such conversations. 

She would also like to see more clergy learn more about the process of death, so that they can reassure families about what they are witnessing – for example, that apparent gasping from the dying person does not indicate pain. She expresses optimism about the growth of civil society organisations – some based around religious organisations – seeking to encourage a more open discussion of death and dying. She speaks particularly warmly of the Death Cafe movement – where people meet for cake and coffee to discuss death issues – and the End of Life doula movement. End of Life doulas seek to shepherd people through death the same way that birth doulas assist women in labour. 

Both of those movements have a key role to play in bringing about the revolution that Mannix would like to see in society’s understanding of death and its role in life. 

Asked what a balanced approach to the issue would look like, Mannix says it would be “very helpful” if people were told at the outset when they were diagnosed with a long term, potentially life-limiting condition that it could be so. 

“Currently, people understand that cancer can kill you,” Mannix says. “But there are many people walking around the country who have long-term lung diseases, kidney diseases, who just wonder why they never feel as well as they used to do.” 

In wider society, meanwhile, she would like to see far more communities taking the opportunity to support the dying. 

“A decision for the public would be to think of an organisation or society or a community that they belong to and how could they be agents of change in that community to explore the concept or ordinary dying,” Mannix says. 

Such communities can decide how best to prepare and make available support for other community members when they are dying. 

“Their dying will come one by one,” Mannix says. “We’ll all take our own turn.” 


While most tickets for Kathryn Mannix’s talk on November 1 have been taken, some more may become available at For those unable to attend, the lecture will be filmed and posted afterwards on the Theos website. 


Popular articles

4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

Popular articles