Rebel Rebel – how David Bowie shone a spotlight on palliative and end-of-life care

New series: The Arts in Palliative Care, looks at how the arts in palliative care settings can be a powerful and effective way of addressing the practical, psychological, social and spiritual issues that face people at the end of their lives.

Rebecca Patterson, Director of Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, Scotland, UK, looks at how palliative care has become part of the world’s largest arts festival.

Rebecca Patterson

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is home to cutting-edge arts and comedy events that challenge existing ideas and tackle subjects not often dealt with elsewhere. Where better for a palliative care consultant to relax, open a bottle of wine, and explore the connections between culture, humour, palliative care and David Bowie?

In a lamp-lit room in the Quaker Meeting House overlooking the rooftops and cobbles of the City of Edinburgh, Cardiff-based palliative care consultant, Mark Taubert, was interviewed by Mark Hazelwood, Chief Executive of the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care. In front of an appreciative audience, the two Marks discussed Dr Taubert’s experiences of working in palliative care, the impact of David Bowie’s death, and an unwanted visit from the Daily Mail.

Mark Hazelwood interviewing Mark Taubert (right).

This unique event was held as part of Death on the Fringe, a hand-picked series of shows that look at death and dying from different perspectives – some serious, some comical – but all contributing to the debate on death and end-of-life matters. Every Death on the Fringe performance has its own unique take on the subject. Organised by the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, the aim of the project is to encourage Fringe audiences not to steer clear of this tricky subject matter and to point them towards some brilliant, entertaining and important events.

From a street mural of David Bowie

In his event, ‘Rebel Rebel – how Bowie shone a spotlight on palliative and end-of-life care’, Mark Taubert told the story of his conversation with a patient the day after David Bowie’s death. Somehow, connecting with each other over their shared loss eased what can so often be uncomfortable – an open and honest conversation about declining health, death, and preferences for care.

This conversation, and the music video of the song ‘Lazarus’, prompted Taubert to write a posthumous letter to David Bowie. A letter that was later the subject of the sole tweet sent by Bowie’s son in the weeks following his death. A letter that went viral over social and print media. A letter that has inspired a musical composition premiered on BBC Radio 3. A letter that has been read out aloud by Jarvis Cocker and Benedict Cumberbatch. Why so much fuss over a letter? Probably best to read it yourself here. 

It is clear that Taubert is a Bowie fan – Bowie provided a soundtrack to many of the significant events in his life. But for him, there’s more to it than that. Bowie was a rebel, and that is something Taubert can identify with.

Working in a society where death is seen as medical failure, do most palliative care specialists feel like rebels? Is it rebellious to think that there might come a time in someone’s life when they might choose to refuse intrusive medical interventions? Is it rebellious to think that medicine isn’t solely about prolonging life at all costs to a person’s comfort? Is it rebellious to suggest that there are some actions we can all take to prepare for our own death and, in doing so, make life easier for ourselves and those we care about?

This is a subject Taubert is passionate about, for example, he has been instrumental in creating videos and websites for the TalkCPR campaign in Wales, which encourages conversations around the topic of Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR). Taubert also raises awareness through his work with Byw Nawr (Live Now), a Welsh initiative working to encourage planning ahead for the last years of life. Death on the Fringe itself is part of a similar Scottish initiative, Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, which works to promote more openness about death, dying and bereavement.

Taubert pointed out that in death, as in life, David Bowie showed people an alternative path – a path where people can make choices about how they die. Perhaps there are few among us who can turn our death into a work of art as Bowie did. But there are choices we can all make to share our wishes about what we’d want when our health is in irreversible decline and we’re approaching the end of life.

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