The Dutch are a pragmatic folk when it comes to death

The Heilig Land Stichting graveyard dates from 1913. Photo: Henk Braam/Hollandse Hoogte
The Heilig Land Stichting graveyard dates from 1913. Photo: Henk Braam/Hollandse Hoogte

The Dutch are a pragmatic lot when it comes to many things in life – and death is no exception either, says editor Robin Pascoe

The Netherlands’ approach to euthanasia always generates a massive postbag on – hardly surprising when you consider the emotion that death brings with it. But for the Dutch themselves, euthanasia is an extremely rational choice. This was brought home to me recently when a friend told me about a bizarre phone call he had just had with an elderly client.

Anna was in her early 90s, blind and suffering from terminal cancer – and she had been expecting to die before Christmas. She didn’t. Every week my friend would ring her on a Friday and have a chat – they would discuss their respective health issues and talk about the weather.

A couple of weeks ago my friend decided to ring on a different day. Anna picked up the phone. ‘Oh I am glad you rang,’ she said. ‘The doctor is coming this afternoon and by 6pm it will be all over.’ Anna then went over to complain about her lily-livered family who were hanging around with sad faces. ‘I’m fine,’ she said to my friend. ‘It has been a pleasure knowing you.’

Final step

The next day the card came announcing that Anna had taken ‘her final step’. It was on thick white paper with a nice photograph of her on the front – and had obviously been printed and stamped ready for posting well in advance of her actual death.

Well prepared, well organised and unsentimental – how Dutch can you get?

It is not the first time I have been confronted with euthanasia in the Netherlands. The first occasion was perhaps more bizarre. A good mate cancelled our lunch date, telling me ‘my grandmother’s euthanasia date has come through’. I was not quite sure how to respond. ‘Oh,’ seems a rather inadequate comment. My friend was very matter of fact. ‘She’s being trying to sort it out for weeks,’ she said.

I know which way I would choose to go. Knowing that you can be helped to end it all when the pain gets too much must make it so much easier to enjoy the time you have left. There is no dread of the bitter end, no being whisked into hospital against your will and overstuffed with morphine.

At home

My Dutch mother-in-law – let us call her Margaret – did not want euthanasia so it was never an issue in her final weeks. She died at home with her children at her side after my husband and his sister pulled out all the stops to keep her out of a nursing home. It was not the most elegant of deaths, but it is what she wanted.

Actually, the one thing which she really wanted was to make sure that neither of her children fell for the funeral insurance salesman’s smarmy ways and ended up having to pay extra money for services they did not want or need.

Like most of the Dutch, particularly the older generations, Margaret had taken out funeral insurance to make sure her family would not have to pay after she died. Margaret was a wily one. She’d stapled the policy to the newspaper advert which prompted her purchase. The ad stated clearly that the deceased and the family need not worry. There would be no extra charges. This was an all-in funeral for €3,500 and that meant no additional bills.

Car and cake

Of course, the funeral director had all sorts of ideas up his sleeve – a more expensive coffin, different sorts of cake, an extra car for the mourners. He also pointed out the lump sum was index-linked to family spending not inflation and so, very sorry about this, there would be a top-up fee of €600.

My husband and his sister told the funeral director there would be no limos for the mourners at all, that we would only be seven and we did not want their machine-made coffee and slices of cake either. So no, they would not be paying the extra fee. More than that, what did we want with the 50 cards to send to family and friends?

With Margaret’s words ringing in their ears, my husband and his sister stood their ground. They were taking no extra services so they would not pay any extra bills. More than that, once it was all over, they demanded the funeral director hand over the unused stamps from the 50 funeral cards – they had been paid for after all.

For months, we were sending our post with the grey stamps used to announce that someone had died. God knows what the recipients thought, but Margaret would have been proud of us.

This column was first published in the Xpat Journal.

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