Inside The Human Body – When the BBC Lost The Plot

Prime Time TV has hit a new low. Last night the BBC aired a programme in which a grandfather of 84, ‘Gerald,’ was shown to die. It’s the first time a “live death” was aired in the UK. The BBC argues that it is of educational interest and is a segment of their Inside the Human Body series which “does not shy away difficult subjects.”
I can understand when a programme wants to show you the inside of a body, the mechanics of a body, even the progressive stages of particular diseases. What, pray tell, could be educational about watching someone’s death?

To be sure, I did not watch the programme. I was delivering a talk some outside London at the time. Even had I been available, I would never expose myself to that sort of grotesque voyeurism. Sure, we’ve all seen people getting shot up, hung up or simply die in the movies. But the mind makes an obvious distinction between what it knows is just make-believe Hollywood and what is the real thing.

Writer and broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell defended the programme in an opinion piece in the national press. She argues that “Being familiar with the moment of death is extremely important.” Really? Why? It’s bad enough when it has to happen. Why does one need to be familiar with it other than when they have to be?
A short while back someone wrote to me in my column about her young son’s hamster which died. She switched it for a new one before he became aware and thereafter felt terribly guilty for deceiving him. I advised her that “what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” “Besides,” I added, “unfortunately he’ll have enough opportunity when he’s older to have to deal with death in one form or another. Shield him that heartache as long as you can.”

There are those who believe in system overload within children. Expose them to everything you can while they’re still young to better equip them for when they get older. That’s sheer gibberish. The whole beauty of childhood is being able to mould the personality within a framework of blessed innocence before the hard facts and cruel realities of life kick in. The same principle should apply on some level to adults as well. We’ve enough to contend with. There’s nothing ‘important’ about being familiar with painful experiences until such point as they present themselves. In the words of the ancient Sages, “it’s enough to have to deal with the pain in its time.”

Bakewell writes how she’s been by the bedsides of both her father and sister when they died “and it transformed my idea of death and how to deal with it. It’s natural and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it…it’s a very special moment and it’s a privilege to be there.”

As a Rabbi I’ve been at several bedsides at the time of death. While I appreciate there is some comfort in being there to the very end with a loved one, and I even get why she would not want to miss it, I’m not quite sure how she could associate the term ‘privilege’ with death. Either way, as much as that applies to a loved one, which is so much more intimate, I don’t know how one makes the leap that sort of personal experience to millions of people simply tuning in to watch someone they don’t even know, die. There cannot be any educational value to it, and frankly it stripped away whatever dignity the old man had left in those dying moments.

Judaism is emphatic about respect that should be accorded the deceased. There are strict rules and regulations as to how one should be treated in their final moments and indeed immediately upon passing. The exhibition the BBC made of Gerald was degrading in the extreme. Hopefully the man can now rest in peace, even as he was denied that opportunity up until the bitter end.