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Eventually you just die

 Surprise (Switzerland) 14 May 2019

(Originally published: 04/2010) Death is a taboo subject. Those in the prime of life suppress their own mortality. But at some point the inevitable approaches. Thoughts about death and dying are often put off ‘til later. We don’t have much time to think about that last question in our daily lives. But what if “later” was now? Four old people from Basel tell Surprise in Switzerland their stories.  - By Mena Kost

Death is a taboo subject. Those in the prime of life suppress their own mortality. But at some point the inevitable approaches. Thoughts about death and dying are often put off 'til later. We don't have much time to think about that last question in our daily lives. But what if "later" was now? Four old people from Basel tell Surprise in Switzerland their stories.


"Funerals are nothing without a life story"

Marthy Rünzi, 93

Marthy Runzi was born in 1916 in Wenslingen ob Tecknau and grew up on a granary and cattle farm. When she was a young woman she moved to Basel where she started her career. She worked among others in the "Migros", at the cinema, at the zoo and in a personnel placement agency. She got married on the day the Second World War broke out. Five years later she gave birth to her son. Marthy Runzi's husband died in 2005 after 65 years of marriage. Mrs Runzi lives in an assisted living apartment for seniors in Basel and is a member of the dorm council and sorts the post every day.

"I sleep very lightly, if someone comes into my room at night, I'll wake up and then I can't get back to sleep later. That's why I've got a sign hanging on my door 'No housekeeping! Please don't come in at night.'

"Actually what I would love most of all, is to lie in bed, lie in and not wake up again. Above all I'm not that particularly attached to life anymore since my husband died. Today he'd be 101. He was a dear man; I miss him every day. We were married for 65 years. That's a long time isn't it?

"However, I make the effort every day. I read the paper, a crime thriller now and then. But I have had constant cystitis since last summer and I have to take medication. The medication has weakened me and my energy left me. You need to know, it's all gets too much for one person. I still suffer from it. You can't come to terms with the fact your energy disappears. For example, I don't own a winter coat anymore because coats are heavy. If I have to take one out of the cupboard, I feel like I'm going to fall right over. So I've got a jacket now. But on Sundays I always put a skirt on. I'm the only one in the whole home. But why shouldn't I, right?

"In the past I didn't think about death much. Now that my energy is disappearing, I do think about it. I can't imagine what it's like being dead. I just can't imagine it. You just aren't there anymore. I don't believe in a heaven or anything like that. But I pray every day, I do believe in a higher power. In any case, I mustn't be afraid at all. I am a person who believes justice is very important. I've never caused anyone any suffering 'Be good and don't be afraid of anyone' was my mother's motto. I took it to heart and tried to be good.

"When it comes to death I have to say: back in the day people said farewell to the dead differently. When my little sister died shortly after being born, her coffin was laid out in the living room. I only know that people kept coming round to ours all day. Relatives, neighbours and friends came to say goodbye to my little sister and to express their condolences to my parents. The house was full of people the next day. I remember I once asked why mother was crying so much. Today it seems people go for a sober farewell. It is superficial almost. It lacks thoughtfulness and sometimes respect. Here in the old people's home, twenty people die every year on average. I've been here for nine years. You can guess I've been to a lot of funerals. The most important thing at a funeral is that a life story is read out. It has to be said, funerals are nothing without life stories. It lacks something; you aren't really sure who you are saying goodbye to. It's not that long ago since I was at the funeral service of a good friend. She didn't want her life story to be read out. That funeral service made me very sad.

"Luckily, my life story is already prepared for the funeral; I have given it to my son to look after. Before my husband died, he wrote a life story for us both. My son also has the family record book - they are the most important things the authorities need after a death. I'd like to be buried by Father Bosshard. He is a very, very good priest and above all, a lovely person. He wants to further educate himself, broaden his horizons professionally and perhaps leave the priesthood. That really concerns me. I will have to speak with him and ask him if he will still be able to bury me. Otherwise I'll have to make death hurry up somewhat.

"I've already sorted out my furniture. I've made a list of different people, who is to get what. When my husband was still alive, from the balcony we once saw a recently deceased person's furniture thrown into a shallow pit. I didn't think that was right at all, what a crying shame. You have to remember I grew up in a working class family. That furniture was absolutely fine."


"Then it will all be gentle, beautiful and light"

Hans Hadorn, 95 und Marthi Hadorn, 93

Hans und Marthi Hadorn both grew up on farms in the Bern region. The Belp Mountain stood between the two farms - which meant an hour-long bike ride. When the war broke out in 1939, Hans had to go into the military: six years of service in the artillery. What a terrible time that was. In 1945 the two could finally get married and for their honeymoon they went to Tecino. A year later a daughter was born. When Hans was offered a post as head of laboratory at Coop while studying to be a chemist, the Hadorns moved to Basel, where they have lived to this day. Since Marthi's stroke seven years ago, the couple have lived in the St Johann's care home.

Marthi Hadorn: "We're happy with our lives aren't we?"

Hans Hadorn: "Yes, we've had it really good. I like to think about when I worked. I was a chemist."

MH: "I was never officially employed. But I'd already worked before we got married; first in a boarding house in Bündnerland and then in a boy's boarding school. 120 boys! Today it was called the Swiss Alpine Middle School. Back then when I worked there in 1941/1942, it belonged to the Germans."

HH: "That was the Hitler era then."

MH: "My father died shortly before then in an accident. He was on the hay truck on the way home to our house. As he pulled into the yard, a car drove ahead and a tarp he had tied to the roof, flapped into the wind. The horse went berserk and ran off. The car ran my father over, right over his chest. He died immediately. Back then I was 22."

HH: "The first time I was confronted with death was when my grandmother died. That was an important relationship to me; I used to go to hers for the holidays. She had been ill for a long time. And as the end got nearer, she asked her daughter - well, my mother - to promise her something. After she was dead, my mother would have to cut a vein in her wrist, to make sure she really was dead and didn't just appear to be dead. Of course being buried alive is a terrible thing to imagine. That doesn't often happen in reality, we only know this scenario from stories. For us, we don't imagine our own deaths as horrible. No, not at all. No, no."

MH: "Why don't we talk about death with each other? Well why not? My husband has wanted to die for a long time."

HH: "Because I've had enough of life, that's why. It is laborious. Everything is laborious. I don't like it anymore. But I am still going. The body has still got life in it."

MH: "I can understand he wants to die. When you're really old like we are, it is simply time. Our energy is disappearing. You aren't independent any more."

HH: "That is it, you're dependent. That's not easy."

MH: "Personally, I am not waiting for death, not at all. I'll just take it as it comes. You can never know what will happen. I've often thought my husband will die before me. But nobody is capable of knowing that."

HH: "I hope I'll just fall asleep one day as usual and not wake up again. But I don't have any impression of death. What is death? You're just gone. Nevertheless I am religious. But being religious, I still have no way of knowing."

MH: "You know; I almost died once, when I gave birth to my second child. He was a boy. I had heavy internal bleeding. He died, he probably drowned in my blood."

HH: "The nurse thought you would die too."

MH: "I remember it well, I thought, now I'm ready. Then everything will be gentle, beautiful and light, wonderfully light. I still think that it'll be like that when I die. That's the way it is when you die. Very beautiful actually."

HH: "We still haven't prepared for our deaths yet. No will or anything."

MH: "Maybe we should do that"

HH: "That's not even that important. You can see that already. Our daughter can see that. We have a very good daughter."

MH: "On the 5th of May we'll have been married for 65 years. Iron wedding anniversary. We've already had our diamond one."

HH: "That's a really long time isn't it, 65 years?"

MH: "That doesn't really happen often nowadays."

HH: "No, not really. Hopefully we'll continue to live and see it. Then we can both have a real celebration right?"


"There's just a big question mark"

Hans Peter Rebsamen, 81

Hans Peter Rebsamen was born in 1929 in Basel and grew up there. He has a passion for cars; his favourite brand is Skoda. He doesn't want to read about what he used to do for a living in the newspaper. Because he thinks that the whole world doesn't need to know about it. They only need to know so much: after his studies, he was employed by an American company to work all over the world: in Asia, USA and Canada.

"My wife was always with me, it didn't matter where I was working in the world at the time. We got to know each other in Basel. We were both born in the same year, 1929 and went to the same school. When we were 15, I stole her from a classmate of mine. We got married six years later. We decided on purpose not to have children. We felt a life of constant travelling was unsuitable for a child.

23 years ago my wife died from cancer. I looked after her for five years. Today I am completely alone; I don't have anybody any more; only an acquaintance that looks after all the financial matters for me. Therefore, I almost always have only myself to focus on. For four years I haven't been able to walk and have to rely on a wheelchair.

When death strikes, you're faced with an unsolvable situation: there is absolutely nothing you can do. You are powerless. Nobody can give an answer to death, not even the most clever of all professors. So there is no answer to death. There's only a big question mark.

When someone dies, then it is the one moment in life where the most important things suddenly become unimportant - the beautiful apartment, the car, everything. Your view of life changes in a flash. And somehow even death will eventually become something unimportant too. It sounds silly now, of course, perhaps you don't get me. Meanwhile, I probably don't respect death enough. But I've already encountered it on several occasions: out of the family I lost my father first, then the wife and then my mother. Just like my wife, I had to look after my mother for five years. One day her Doctor asked me: 'Do you want to let your mother die at home or in the hospital?' 'In the hospital,' I answered. I turned into a coward. I was overcome with fear when I heard that word: death. I was afraid that I still wouldn't protest and had surrendered before death.

I don't believe in life after death. To be honest, I haven't visited my dead relatives once in the graveyard. Never. They don't exist anymore. Just in my thoughts. But thoughts are not very solid. What I mean is; I am able to think about my death while having supper. I always see everything rationally. My opinion is and will remain: there's nothing after you die. Eventually you just die, end, finish, full stop, out.

Anyway, death isn't a difficult subject for me. Consequently it depends on other people: no life without death. And because I care a great deal about people and animals, life is important to me. I like being alive. If I could choose to die eventually like a normal person, or would prefer to live forever, and then in that case it there would be no contest: live forever. Because of technology and advancement. I would be incredibly interested, to see how the world would look in 50 years time, what kind of new technical achievements there would be. That's why I would really opt for eternal life. Therefore a human life is sufficient for absolutely nothing, even developmentally. But everyone has to die sometime.

When I go back to my room this evening and the carer asks me if I need anything; then I'll say as usual, 'No, thanks.' Should it happen this evening and I notice I am dying, and then I won't have anything else to say other than: now my time is up. If I could choose then I'd like to die like this: I have fished a lot in my life, somewhere on the Rhein. Therefore I'd like to die on a beautiful river, on which I can go fishing. My whole life I've hardly every hooked a fish - and that's how it should be the last time. I would sit on the riverbank, all alone, happy in peace and quiet. Then I would die."

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