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A Good Death

Two new memoirs examine the way we die—and reflect on how we can do it better.

Illustration by Cathy Gendron

“Once upon a time,” Katy Butler writes in Knocking on Heaven’s Door, “we knew how to die.” We gathered family and friends, leaned in to time-honored rituals, put our affairs in order, and said good-bye—usually at home and under the care of a doctor we’d known for years.These days, though, while 75 percent of Americans prefer to die at home, only a quarter actually do. Most of us languish in hospitals, hooked up to machines that keep us alive when our bodies might be all too ready to go, monitored by specialists who learn our names by reading our charts and who receive higher Medicare reimbursements for costly last-ditch procedures than for discussions of palliative options.How did we get here? And can we find our way back?Butler’s book offers no easy answers. Neither does Monica Wesolowska’s Holding Silvan. These memoirs give something more valuable. Thirty-seven years after Karen Ann Quinlan’s father won the legal right to discontinue all extraordinary means of life support, they show the dimensions of a good death in wrenching situations.At 79, Katy Butler’s father suffered a stroke. During the next …

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