The founder of the modern hospice movement, Cicely Saunders, has made it possible for thousands to die with dignity.

The visitor to Saint Christopher’s Hospice, situated in a shady suburb in south London, first notices its unlikeness to a typical hospital. Rooms are filled with furniture purchased from a department store, not an institutional catalogue. Front windows frame a view of a park manicured in fine English tradition; rear windows overlook a flower garden and goldfish pond. Signs of life are everywhere: the staff gathers around a bedside singing “Happy Birthday,” artwork hangs from every blank wall space, and a patient’s cocker spaniel is carried in for a visit.

Despite the homeyness, a cloud hangs over Saint Christopher’s, for the building is, in essence, a place where people come to die. Forty percent of its patients die within their first week.

Since opening Saint Christopher’s in 1967, Cicely Saunders—now Dame Cicely, after being so honored by Queen Elizabeth II—has made it possible for 15,000 people to die in the way they choose, without high-tech intervention and artificial postponements. The design of her 62-bed hospice incorporates everything she has learned about care for the dying. “Every person deserves a good death,” says Dame Cicely, and she devotes her boundless energy to providing that right for her patients.

Saunders rules her hospice not as Dame but as Queen, and her visits to the wards resemble royal visits to the colonies. Her physical presence itself is daunting: she is six-feet tall, and has the no-nonsense demeanor of a schoolmarm. She treats the patients with kindness and calls all the nurses by name, but woe to the staff member who slacks ...

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