Making death ‘good’: instructional tales for dying in newspaper accounts of Jade Goody’s death
Address for correspondence: Hannah Frith, School of Applied Social Science, University of Brighton, Falmer Campus, Village Way, Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9PH
Facilitating a ‘good’ death is a central goal for hospices and palliative care organisations. The key features of such a death include an acceptance of death, an open awareness of and communication about death, the settling of practical and interpersonal business, the reduction of suffering and pain, and the enhancement of autonomy, choice and control. Yet deaths are inherently neither good nor bad; they require cultural labour to be ‘made over’ as good. Drawing on media accounts of the controversial death of UK reality television star Jade Goody, and building on existing analyses of her death, we examine how cultural discourses actively work to construct deaths as good or bad and to position the dying and those witnessing their death as morally accountable. By constructing Goody as bravely breaking social taboos by openly acknowledging death, by contextualising her dying as occurring at the end of a life well lived and by emphasising biographical continuity and agency, newspaper accounts serve to position themselves as educative rather than exploitative, and readers as information-seekers rather than ghoulishly voyeuristic. We argue that popular culture offers moral instruction in dying well which resonates with the messages from palliative care.
When 27-year-old UK reality TV star, Jade Goody, died of cancer on Mothering Sunday 2009, it marked the culmination of a storm of media coverage which had followed her with increased intensity since she was told of her cancer diagnosis on live television in 2008. Goody, part of a growing type of celebrity who are famous for being famous rather than because of particular achievements or talents, gained notoriety through Channel 4’s 2002 Big Brother and a number of celebrity reality shows, including Celebrity Wife Swap and Celebrity Big Brother. Despite coming only fourth in Big Brother, she nonetheless carved out a lucrative career from the production of fitness DVDs, perfume and autobiographies, amassing a personal fortune estimated in the region of some £2–4 million at the time of her death (Kavka and West 2010). Goody had been a regular feature of British tabloid press since her first appearance on Big Brother– frequently attracting ridicule and censure for being ignorant or uneducated – and often appeared in celebrity gossip magazines such as Heat and OK revealing details about her private life.
While her death received unprecedented coverage in British newspapers, it was reported internationally from The New York Times in America to The Hindu in India. Unlike other celebrities who die suddenly and unexpectedly (such as Princess Diana or Michael Jackson), which itself provides dramatic currency for the media (Hearsum and Inglis 2010), the coverage of Goody’s death was unusual because it depicted the detailed preparation for an expected and anticipated death. As both journalists and academics alike noted, the coverage of Goody’s dying was unusual in its intensity and visibility (Walter 2009, 2010), in the display of a diseased and dying body (Kavka and West 2010) and in the debates about whether dying in public was an appropriate source of TV entertainment. Debate raged about whether such a highly visible death could be considered a decent, dignified or good death. As Seale and van der Geest (2004: 883) point out, ‘making a death good or bad is an active process in which both dying people and those around them participate’. It is this active process that this article explores in relation to Jade’s death. We argue that newspaper accounts form part of the cultural labour involved in imbuing death and dying with meaning, drawing the boundaries between good and bad deaths and, ultimately, making over Goody’s dying as good. We situate newspaper accounts of Jade’s death in relation to debates about the professional death work involved in delivering a good death in palliative care and explore how celebrities can be seen as telling instructional morality tales (Kitch 2000) about how people might live a good life and how they might die a good death.
A good (or bad) death in palliative care
Notions of good or bad deaths provide a framework through which death and dying are given meaning. Although such ideas have long histories (Aries 1987) which are culturally and historically specific (see edited collection by Seale and van der Geest 2004), recently these have become inextricably linked to the development of expertise in the hospice and palliative care movements in which facilitating a good death is a central goal for professional practice. The hospice and palliative care model is ‘unashamedly reformist’ (James and Field 1992: 1363) in challenging mainstream medical discourses by purporting to offer a better way to die, which involves person-centred holistic care meeting the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of the dying.
These movements rest on the assumption that some deaths are inherently good. Identifying the core characteristics of a good death through interviews with professional caregivers and relatives of the dying, as well as the dying themselves, has become an important route to improving care (Costello 2006, Low and Payne 1996, Masson 2002, Payne et al. 1996, Pierson et al. 2002). Typically, the following characteristics are identified: (i) an open awareness of death with open communication; (ii) a gradual acceptance of death; (iii) a settling of both practical and interpersonal business; and, in order for these to take place, (iv) the dying person’s suffering should be reduced and their pain relieved. More recently, particular emphasis has been given to patient autonomy, choice and control over the dying process such as decisions about end of life treatment and the timing and location of death (McNamara 2004, Pool 2004). Bad deaths, by contrast, are characterised by pain, loneliness, distress, non-acceptance and lack of preparedness (Costello 2006, Seale 1995b). Despite some agreement about what constitutes a good death, we argue that deaths are inherently neither good nor bad and the recognition of them as such rests on shared cultural understandings of death and dying that are constantly rearticulated and contested.
Social scientists have explored how the ideologies of a good death enshrined in end-of-life care policies and embedded in ideals of professional death work are put into practice. Making a death good requires considerable work and is not always achievable (McNamara et al. 1995, Masson 2002). McNamara (2004) notes how the tension between the philosophy of a good death and the current climate of patient autonomy and consumer choice creates uncertainty. For example, patients who ‘choose’ not to accept, or who ‘stubbornly refuse’ to talk openly about death, may embody a bad death for professionals even if it is a death that meets their own needs or wishes.
Making meaning out of death and dying is not just (or even primarily) about the experience of the dying themselves; the ideology of a good death has implications for how carers – both professional and lay – make sense of their own place in the dying process. Patients who experience bad deaths (because they were ‘sudden’, ‘prolonged’ or ‘traumatic’) or whose behaviour did not meet the ideal of the good death model (by failing to actively pursue the fulfilment of living until the final stages of death) provoke a sense of personal failure and a collective concern about possible negligence, while a good death is equated with a job well done (McNamara et al. 1995). The making of a death as good or bad has implications not only for the accountability of both professional carers and the dying person themselves, but also for friends, neighbours and society itself who are also held morally accountable for the nature of death. Seale (1995b: 378) has demonstrated how narratives about dying alone (a bad death) are concerned with managing moral accountability by providing an opportunity for ‘neighbours to demonstrate their neighbourliness and for relatives to explain how they fulfilled their duty of love and care’. Relatives also engage in what Masson (2002) calls biographical meaning-making, by situating death as happening at the end of a good, fulfilled life or in a way which is consistent with how the person lived (for example, a sociable person who dies surrounded by friends and family). Dying therefore places an obligation on others to ensure that the death is good, since they may be held morally accountable if it is bad.
Sociological work analysing the good death as it is practised and experienced has, then, identified a number of ideological features of this notion. Firstly, dying well is aspirational and a good death represents an ideal type that may not be achievable in practice. Secondly, a good death requires labour to make the death good – either the professional labour involved in helping individuals to accept death or relieve pain, or the biographical labour undertaken by family and friends to place the death in the context of the individual’s life. Thirdly, creating a good death places obligations and responsibilities on all those involved in the dying process – professionals, friends and relatives and the dying themselves – who are positioned differently by good/bad deaths. Finally, with the growing importance of rhetoric about individual autonomy and choice, responsibility shifts from the social collective to the individual who is dying who must make decisions about how they want to die. As McNamara (2004: 936) notes, ‘dying people are expected to live well until they die and make their own choices in this process’.
Drawing on each of these key observations, we examine how Goody’s death is presented as an aspirational model for dying well, we expose the cultural labour that journalists engage in to produce an account of a good death, we explore the moral accountability of journalists and audiences in producing and consuming these accounts and we outline the role of autonomy, choice and biographical continuity in constructing a good death. Our aim is not only to show that media coverage of Jade’s death mirrors or reinforces the model presented in palliative care but also to demonstrate how similar ideological functions are enacted through popular, widely read and hugely influential mass media accounts of celebrity deaths.
Good death and the cultural imagination
Current debates about good or bad deaths are primarily located in medical settings. Rarely have contemporary cultural representations of good and bad deaths been considered (see Seale 1995a, 1995b, 2004 and Pool 2004 for rare exceptions). This is surprising, given the high visibility of death in the mass media in everything from news reports, soap operas, hospital dramas, talk shows, documentaries and self-help guides to websites (McIlwain 2005, Woodthorpe 2010). Media coverage of celebrity deaths form just one part of this mediatised access to death. Academic work on the deaths of well-known figures has focused on public mourning practices (Gibson 2007, Roseneil 2001, Thomas 2008) and commemorative journalism, in which journalists use public figures to tell instructional tales in which the unstable moment of death is reworked as an acceptance of death and a reaffirmation of group values (Kitch 2000, Kitch and Hume 2008). Academic interest in the media circus accompanying Jade’s death has been piqued by two key features of Jade’s death – the public nature of her dying and its link to reality TV, and the contested and vitriolic media commentary on whether she was right to publicise and make money out of selling her death (Woodthorpe 2010). Woodthorpe (2010) took as her cue the commodification of Jade’s dying, while Kavka and West (2010) focused on how Goody’s dying placed her in a nexus of debates about celebrity, manufacture of fame and authenticity and their relationship to the reality TV genre (Kavka and West 2010). Walter (2009: 3.6) examined how the high profile coverage of Jade’s dying – including
the day-by-day front page pictures of her dying body, the headlines of her physical and mental anguish, the stories of her being dashed to hospital for emergency pain-relieving operations or of her begging to be let home to die
– challenged the sequestration thesis that death is hidden and its meaning privately negotiated. In a later article Walter (2010) explored the idea that celebrity deaths can ‘tell the British public about what it is like to die of cancer’. While this implies an almost neutral educative function, in this article we examine how discourses around good and bad deaths can function ideologically to produce accounts of how we should die. If, as Kitch (2000) suggests, newspapers produce morality tales out of celebrity deaths, and if popular culture provides a template for living well (Ouellette and Hay 2008), then we would argue that this pedagogic ideology also extends to instruct us in dying well.
British cultural studies offers an alternative way of understanding the importance of media texts in informing our cultural imagination. Rejecting a linear, transmission causal model of mass communications, the alternative ‘circuit of culture’ framework recognises that the significance of the mass media lies in its operating through the selective provision of social knowledge, and struggles for legitimacy and consensus about the nature of reality through discursive means (Curran and Gurevitch 2000, Fairclough 1995, Hall 1977, 1980). Processes of meaning-making – of encoding and decoding meanings contained in media communications – are central to this model. According to Carvalho and Burgess (2005), the model distinguishes between three key moments: production, textual analysis and consumption, leading to new moments of production. Production refers to the work media professionals do to produce stories from source materials in contexts structured by institutional, economic, political and technological demands. This process of translating information gained from interviews with celebrities, their publicists and other sources into information for a wider reading public can be termed cultural labour (see Rowe and Brass 2008 for an examination of the cultural labour involved in translating academic knowledge into newspaper accounts). Journalists and others, then, make the news by making over or transforming raw information into the final texts guided by a wide variety of influences including ideologies, time scales, values about newsworthiness, understandings of the audience and familiar story-lines (Kitch 2000).
The results of this cultural labour – the public dissemination of media communication in visual, linguistic or aural form – are open to textual analysis to expose the rhetorical functions of these texts, the ways that they position and seek to persuade audiences, and the kinds of realities that they construct (van Dijk 1988, Fairclough 1995). This article presents one such textual analysis of the newspaper coverage of Goody’s death as it was reported in UK and Irish papers (although palliative care in Ireland and UK has a different history, the ideologies of a good death and the reporting of Goody’s death share similar characteristics that justify the use of both). The final aspect of the model lies with the diverse audiences who consume and make meaning of media communications. We recognise that media texts can be read and engaged with in a number of ways, some of which may be critical and resistant (Negra 2009), and it is beyond the scope of this article to explore how media constructions of Jade’s death were taken up (or not) by readers. Rather, this article draws on a preferred reading (Dworkin and Wachs 2004) that seeks to identify dominant narratives and narrative devices. It does so to identify a shaping of common sense values and opinions (Joffe and Staerklé 2007), whether intentional or not (Skeggs 2004). We argue that the media commentary on Goody’s dying exposes the cultural labour that goes into actively constructing deaths as good or bad (reflecting the distinctions drawn in the palliative care literature) and into managing the moral accountability of the dying, the journalists who report their dying and the audiences who consume news of their death.
Making Jade’s death good
Goody’s dying was characterised by controversy about the public nature of her dying and whether this was exploitative, inappropriate and offensive or informative, brave and enlightening. These debates were further blurred by the controversial figure of Goody herself, who was variously depicted as a caring mother working hard to look after her boys and selflessly educating the public, or as a celebrity ‘chav’ (a gross representation of the working class) of questionable taste and morality, and a reality TV star marred by a medium which thrives on hyper-visibility and muddying the boundaries between public and private. Against this backdrop of questionable morality and the revulsion against ‘low culture’ we explore how Goody’s death is made good in newspaper accounts.
Being brave: awareness, openness and accountability
In the palliative care movement one of the cornerstones of a good death is an open awareness and acceptance of death. Goody’s death offers an example of this par excellence. In contrast to earlier representations in which Goody was briefly presented as fighting the disease and being unwilling to let it ‘beat her’, later presentations show Goody as having accepted her impending death. As publicist Max Clifford was reported as saying: ‘She is dying, she knows she is dying’ (Boshoff 2009). Seale (1995a) has powerfully argued that the moral character of the person who faces up to or denies death is at stake in accounts of dying. Journalists often use familiar and formulaic storylines (Kitch 2000) and the depiction of dying people as brave or heroic is prevalent in media stories – especially people who are dying of cancer (Seale 1991, 1995a). Goody was routinely described as brave: she bravely faced her cancer, she bravely allowed cameras to follow her, she bravely showed her bald head in public, she bravely talked about her illness in order to educate others. Walter (2010) notes that this often contrasted with Jade’s own autobiographical voice which frequently focused on feeling scared, ill or in pain, which threatened the narrative of a good death being pain free. Nonetheless, although Goody was routinely vilified by the press during her career (as ignorant, racist, sexually promiscuous, unworthy of media attention, and so on), bravery was one of the ways in which the character of Goody was made good in death.
Moreover, the publicity surrounding Goody’s death afforded her bravery an extra dimension – not only did she face up to her cancer, she also showed courage in exposing her suffering to the public, thereby battling against social norms and taboos. We cannot know whether Goody felt brave in openly discussing her approaching death, but constructing her as such positioned being open and accepting of death as the right way of handling death. This was made possible only by presenting Britain as a society that is secretive and reticent about talking about death, a place where most deaths ‘take place in silence and private, blinds down, doors closed, away from what used to be called prying eyes’ (The Guardian 2009). Whether or not death has become sequestered or hidden from view has been an ongoing debate in academic discourse around the sociology of death and dying and our aim is not to use newspaper accounts of Jade’s death as evidence one way or the other, as others have done (Walter 2009). Rather, we argue that the construction of society as being at a tipping point of a more enlightened attitude towards death is itself a discursive resource for newspapers to draw upon in making Jade’s death good. Constructing public discussion of death as a good thing (something that lies at the heart of the hospice and palliative care movements) is central to the positioning of Jade as brave:
But the most significant result of Jade’s cancer is that, because of her honesty and the openness which she’s shown in telling people what has been happening, the British public have been discussing death and dying – and dying from cancer – in a way they have not done before. That can only be a good thing from the point of view of helping to end the UK’s ingrained reluctance to talk about the grim realities of an aggressive cancer and the lead-up to someone’s death. (Devane 2009)
The positioning of Goody as brave in sharing her story with the rest of us and as selflessly delivering educational tales about the grim realities of death is at odds with alternative representations that position her as exploited, attention seeking, money-grabbing and vulgar. If accounts of death implicate the moral reputations not only of the dying, but also of those around them, as Seale suggests, then the positioning of Goody as brave (or otherwise) has implications for the positioning of journalists and for media audiences. For example, Goody’s bravery was contrasted with those of ‘us’ who are too afraid or too cowardly to be able to do the same:
I understand that many people would be too embarrassed to share their lives with the world, too afraid of what the world might think of them. Because of this, the tendency for most of us is to value modesty and to think that the more ‘reserved’ a person is, the more honourable and dignified they are. (Clarke 2009)
Moreover, our accountability as witnesses to Goody’s death was also at stake. The relentless publicity surrounding her death was described by some as marking ‘a new low in society’s celebrity voyeurism’ (O’Connell 2009) and a headline (Moir 2009) asked ‘Are we so desensitized that watching a woman’s death is acceptable entertainment?’ One positioning of the audience, then, is as ghoulishly obsessed with the grisly details of death and as taking perverse enjoyment in watching the suffering of others:
those who follow the Jade Goody coverage with such seemingly prurient interest should, I believe, examine their motives ⋖ perhaps some of those people obsessively following the Jade story – photo by photo, detail by detail – are betraying the same instincts as those who slow down on the motorway to stare at some poor wretch hanging out of their windscreen? ⋖ What we are seeing in these final stages of Jade Goody’s life is little more than creepy voyeurism. (Lansdale 2009)
If Goody is positioned as ‘the victim of an ever-growing, ever-hungry publicity machine’ (Freeman 2009), where others ‘feed off her earning potential’ (Moir 2009) then both the media who perpetuate images and details of her death and the audiences who consume them are cast as morally reprehensible. Drawing on an alternative discourse of Jade as bravely educating the public about death, positions journalists and the audiences of this material as good citizens who are also contributing to public debate about the nature of death. If Jade is brave, we too can become brave if we face death alongside her:
when I sat down and watched Jade having chemotherapy ⋖ I saw no evidence of narcissism nor of trying to promote anything. I simply saw a brave girl who was still able to smile and joke, even though every part of her was hurting and that’s without mentioning the emotional pain of having to prepare to leave behind her little children and her lover. I felt a little bit braver, just for having watched her be brave. And I felt intensely grateful to her for having been good enough to allow me, as a viewer, to have such access to her life. (Clarke 2009)
A discourse of the open awareness of death, one which fits neatly with the ideology of a good death, allows the dying person to be positioned as bravely breaking societal taboos and selflessly educating the public about the realities of death. For Jade, who was often treated as morally suspect, a repository for class-based disgust and as indicative of the decline of British values, this allowed a remarkable recasting of her morality and character. In addition, this allowed journalists to position themselves as enabling this open debate and as occupying a site of education rather than entertainment, of support rather than exploitation. Similarly it enabled a shift away from implicating audiences as voyeuristic to being characterised as having a legitimate interest in dying.
‘Now I’m ready to go to Heaven’: living the good life, preparing for death
Whether a death can be seen as good or bad often depends on the contextualisation of dying within the life lived (Masson 2002). According to Howarth (1998), a good death is typically seen as one that occurs naturally in old age when life projects are complete. Deaths in young people are considered tragic and untimely – a bad death – and as particularly stressful for both professional carers and for the friends and relatives left behind (Payne et al. 1996). Goody’s death at the age of 27 could be seen as tragic and untimely, but although this was acknowledged it was rarely the focus of newspaper coverage. Instead, much of the coverage focused on Goody’s preparation for marriage and the christening of her sons. In other words, the coverage focused as much on her living as it did on her dying, and as such may have served to shield audiences from the realities of bodily deterioration and distance them from death (Woodthorpe 2010). Actively pursuing the fulfilment of living until the final stages of death is a foundation of the good death ideology (McNamara et al. 1995) and we explore how accounts of Jade’s marriage and motherhood served to contextualise her dying within the context of a life well lived. This not only allowed for the reworking of Goody as a good citizen who demonstrated appropriate femininity and middle-class aspirations, but also as being ready to die despite her young age.
Arguably, in order for Goody’s death to be good, her life also had to be made good. Until the news of her dying, Goody’s appearance, her sexual promiscuity, her ignorance or lack of knowledge and her way of speaking made her subject to vitriolic class-based critique. As a ‘celebrity chav’ Jade was anchored to an essential class identity regardless of her financial success and fame, and the female celebrity chav is characterised by an inability to perform femininity correctly (Tyler and Bennett 2010). Walter (2010) identifies a number of facets to the media’s redemption of Goody which recount her struggles and difficulties, ending in forgiveness and a celebration of her life, but we focus here on her status as wife and mother.
Visions of Goody clothed in a simple white wedding dress, fluttering her long eyelashes made more striking by her bald head and kissing her new husband Jack Tweed are among some of the most iconic pictures of Jade during her final months (see Walter 2010 for a discussion of these images) and news of her impending wedding and the christening of her sons came to fill many column inches. Jermyn (2001) argues that the magnitude and newsworthiness of women’s ‘tragic’ deaths is measured by the construction of their place in the family or in relation to lost or thwarted heterosexual romances. For example, discussing the media representation of murdered British television presenter Jill Dando, Jermyn notes that despite her career success, media discourse focused on her ‘unfulfilled’ desire to be married (similarly accounts of Princess Diana’s death depicted her as on the brink of finding happiness in a new relationship). The tragedy of Jade’s death was made good through what was purported to be a fairytale ending in which Jade was re-appropriated into respectable femininity by achieving every good girl’s dream – marriage and motherhood. In so doing, she was also positioned as being ready for death.
A key indicator of the moral deficiency of female chavs and one which draws scathing media commentary, is their inadequacy as mothers (witness the media treatment of Kerry Katona or Britany Spears – see Tyler and Bennett 2010, Williamson 2010). It is not surprising then that Jade’s role as a mother came to occupy a central space in media accounts about her death and formed a key part of her redemption. A contrast was often drawn between her own experience of deficient parenting and Jade’s strengths as a mother. Few obituaries failed to mention the drug addict father who left when she was a child and her crack-smoking mother who failed to care for her properly, or that as a child Jade looked after her disabled mother. Goody’s success in being able to (to some extent) transcend the dinginess of her tawdry beginnings by becoming wealthy and by being herself a good mother was constructed as evidence of a life well lived. Motherhood also served to deflect criticism from those who argued that she was greedy, vulgar or distasteful in attempting to sell her death to the highest bidder:
People will say I’m doing this for money. And they’re right, I am. But it’s not to buy flash cars or big houses – it’s for my sons’ future if I’m not here. I don’t want my kids to have the same miserable, drug-blighted, poverty-stricken childhood I did. (The Times, 22 March 2009)
Jade’s decision to sell her story was re-presented as a working mum trying to provide for her children. Publicist Max Clifford was reported as saying that one of the key reasons for Jade deciding to go public with her death was that ‘she wants to make as much money as she possibly can because she had two kids to support and this is her way of making money’ (McVeigh 2009). Holmes (2009) notes how, following the race row on Celebrity Big Brother, in which Goody became the focus of national vilification, motherhood became a primary means for redeeming her identity with a particular emphasis on her being a working mum bound up with sacrifice and responsibility. These themes are reiterated in discussions about Goody’s death.
An open awareness and acceptance of one’s own death allows for the possibility of preparing appropriately for death by settling practical and interpersonal business. Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of a good death. The settling of Goody’s financial affairs and the emphasis on providing well for her children became an important part of the story of her death. This included ensuring her sons could enjoy a ‘good’ education at private schools and that her wealth would go directly to her sons and that her soon-to-be husband Jack Tweed (who was never really able to escape his position as a chav) would not benefit from her hard work. Jade was made over from working class chav to responsible mother with aspirations of upward mobility to be realised through her children:
It is the ambition of every normal parent that their child’s life is better than their own, and the means to that end are trivial in the extreme. In her final days, she has gone a long way to exploding the repellent stereotype of the feckless, feral, self-absorbed, instant gratification-obsessed underclass with which she was once made synonymous. (Norman 2009)
Putting her affairs in order by writing a will and planning for the future life of her children positioned Goody’s death as a good, prepared-for death. Being able to achieve life goals is also seen as key to preparing for death. Much of the media coverage of Goody’s trajectory towards death concentrated on her preparations for and eventual marriage to Jack Tweed. The marriage itself was a media event, in which Goody struck a £1 million deal with OK! magazine for exclusive access to the wedding. Like Dando, Goody was wealthy and successful, yet marriage was presented as the pinnacle of her fulfilment:
She will regard simply becoming Mrs Tweed as a victory, and, since she was given the terrible news ten days ago that her cancer is terminal, this has been the only thing she wants. Getting married to Jack Tweed, a handsome lad six years her junior, was at the top of the list of things she wants to do before she dies. (Boshoff 2009)
Having lived a good life – one which is fulfilled and in which goals have been realised – is the prerequisite for a good death. Preparing a list of things to do before death allows a sense of completion and achievement if these goals are realised:
Earlier this week, in her final interview, the star bid a brave farewell to the public. She said: ‘I can look back and be proud of what I’ve done. I’ve achieved more in 27 years than some achieve in their lifetime.’⋖ She told OK! magazine: ‘I was given a death sentence, but I didn’t let it kill me. I fought it, got married, got christened, I’m happy. I could bitch about dying young, but at the end of the day, I can look back on my life and be proud of what I have done. (Barr 2009)
Being able to fulfil these dreams renders her untimely death as a 27-year-old woman timely – she had lived a good life, and achieved the things that every good woman should. Thus, she was able to pronounce herself ‘ready’ for death:
‘I’ve had the happiest day of my life,’ Jade told OK! magazine at the wedding party at Down Hall Country House Hotel in Hatfield Heath, Essex, before poignantly adding: ‘Now I’m ready to go to heaven.’ (Johnson et al. 2009)
While dying a bad death can appear to be retribution for character flaws (Seale 2004), dying a good death can be seen as the fitting end to a life well lived. If untimely deaths are difficult and uncomfortable, then a prepared-for death in which goals have been reached can reposition death as occurring at the end of a fulfilling life, making it more comfortable for all those who witness it.
‘She lived as she died’: biographical continuity
One fear associated with a bad death is that the person will be changed and become unrecognisable in the face of death. A bad death may be a lingering, painful one where the dying person suffers a loss of physical or mental abilities, effectively becoming a non-person or just a body (Howarth 1998). A good death requires the continuity of the person’s essence right up to the moment of death – often realised through the person’s continued ability to exercise control and make decisions. As Walter (2010) points out, a key aim of palliative care is to empower the dying person to retain agency, and accounts of Goody’s agency – in using the media for her own ends, displaying herself to be a working-class woman able to control her own fate, being a fighter – were a common part of the media coverage. But a good death also requires biographical continuity in which the dying individual remains the same person in death as they were in life – including consistency in functioning (a person’s dying should reflect their lifestyle) and the preservation of the person’s uniqueness and idiosyncrasies (Stephen 1991).
Contestations over whether Goody was right or wrong to die in public can be reworked as being right-for-Jade, since this reflects her unique character and way of living. To counter the view that sharing her experience of dying with the public via television and the newspapers was exploitative or distasteful, this decision can be presented as a natural extension of the way that Goody lived her life –‘I’ve lived in front of the cameras. And maybe I’ll die in front of them’ (Anon 2009a). This is all the more powerful since these are reported as Goody’s own words – her own agency and autonomy remains intact. The boldness of Goody’s decision to share her intimate experiences of dying in such an immediate and visual way was also constructed as synonymous with her candid, open and honest personality, qualities which arguably set her apart from other celebrities. Reality television contestants who reveal a unified and authentic self verified by surveillance across varied social spaces are approved of by TV audiences (Dyer 1986). Goody revealed on television aspects of her self, her life and her relationships that are usually kept private and are considered unsuitable for public consumption (such as her nudity and ‘romps’ under the bedclothes with a fellow Big Brother contestant). Her extension of this into coverage of her death was presented as simply Jade being Jade.
The ability to make choices and to exercise control – over end-of-life care, location of death, funeral arrangements and so on – has been central to the philosophy of a good death (McNamara 2004). These issues were reflected in the media concern about whether Goody was being exploited or was a shrewd businesswoman, and anxieties about whether she would be able to die at home with her loved ones or be too ill to leave hospital. Those who commented on Goody’s approaching death often emphasised her autonomy and agency in, for example, planning and preparing for her funeral:
‘Jade wanted a celebration of her life. It will be very much a Jade Goody Production with Jade doing her own thing her own way’. Jade had originally given the job of planning the funeral to one of her bridesmaids. ‘But within a minute she was saying that she didn’t want that and she didn’t want this and how she wanted it to be’. (Max Clifford quoted in Anon 2009b)
Seale (1995a) argues that continuing with the project of self in the face of death is the reward for an aware death. Planning for death, settling practical affairs, organising the funeral, writing a will and giving instructions about what needs to be done after death, is taken as indicative of the person’s moral strength of character. Although Goody’s body may have become weak, the message is that her spirit, her essence, the thing that makes Jade Jade, continues to be strong. If, as Seale (2004: 967) has argued, a confessional death in which the terminally ill accept their approaching death, reconstruct personal biographies and preside over their last days like ‘a chief mourner at a funeral’ have become increasingly valued, then coverage of Jade’s death offers an illuminating example.
Moreover, Seale argues that this kind of death becomes inherently bound up with the reflexive identity project that we continuously work on, even into death. Goody is constructed as choosing a death that reflects her life, her own personality and individuality. For example, much was made of Goody’s joke that she should have a wreath shaped like a Marmite (a yeast-based spread) jar since she was equally loved and hated, and her much repeated ‘East Angular’ gaff was also immortalised in a funeral wreath. As one newspaper described it: ‘It was big, bold, brightly coloured and brash with neither nuance nor subtlety in sight. Everything, in fact, that Jade Goody would have wished for’ (Craig et al. 2009). Despite the sneering tone, this both reflects the growing trend towards increasingly personalised funeral rituals (Schafer 2007) which celebrate the life of the individual (Garces-Foley and Holcomb 2005), and confirms the continuity of Goody’s unique personality into death, ensuring she is not just a body but remains a full citizen to the end.
In this article we have explored the ways in which cultural discourses actively work to construct deaths as good, and how newspaper reporting of death serves to tell instructional tales about how to die. Walter (2010) has illuminated the ways that media coverage of Jade’s death can educate the public about what it is like to die from cancer – perhaps in a more vivid way than is typical – which exposes the grim realities of dying. In this article we have sought to focus on the ideological functions of the coverage and how this is predicated on the notion of a good death foreshadowed by a good life. Goody’s death – although surrounded by controversy about the public consumption of her dying, complicated by the controversial figure of Goody herself and the nature of her celebrity, and by the tragedy of a young mother’s death – was ultimately made good. We have demonstrated how a good death is not (just) about the actual experience of death for the dying person; it also involves the moral accountability of those who are, however tangentially, involved in the death. Stories about a good (and bad) death invoke judgements about good and bad ‘others’. In this case we have focused on judgements about media producers and their audiences, but reports have also focused on the accountability of relatives, friends, and the National Health Service (see Walter 2010). The narrating of death cannot be separated from these judgements about morality. In the context of profound anxieties about the loss of self through illness and death, such good death stories in which the self remains unchanged, able to autonomously and agentically make decisions and take action, may be personally reassuring. But this overlooks the ideological functions of the good death discourse:
the ideology of the good death legitimates a new form of social control within which socially approved death and dying are characterized by proscribed and normalized behaviours and choices. (Hart et al. 1998: 65)
If we are to take seriously the claims that the good death serves to marginalise other modes of death, we must accept that such pedagogical stories also serve ideological functions. By exploring wider cultural representations of death, we might better situate notions of a good death and examine how these seep out from the palliative care movement to circulate in the cultural imaginary. These are stories about how we should live and how we should die.