Death With Dignity

I don’t think there’s anyone or anything to prosecute here.  In other words this isn’t something for the penal law to deal with, in my opinion.

It seems so sad, and unfair, for a young woman to suffer and die.  Far be it from me to second guess Brittany Maynard‘s decision.  Her situation was hopeless.

I don’t have a lot of experience with death, and it’s a difficult subject.  But what little I have doesn’t seem to lend itself to the term “dignity”.  The process by which the body deteriorates and expires doesn’t appear dignified to me, and that’s one of the reasons people dread to die.

Then again, like a lot of things I have little experience with, but which nevertheless strike me as interesting or important, I have indeed devoted considerable thought to death.  Maybe that’s all right.  Some things are better understood through contemplation than with observation.  As far as that goes, I can’t express the thought any better than Soren:

I have disciplined myself and keep myself under discipline, in order that I may be able to execute a sort of nimble dancing in the service of Thought, so far as possible also to the honor of the God, and for my own satisfaction…Do I enjoy any reward? Have I permission, like the priest at the altar, to eat of the sacrifices? . . . That must remain my own affair. My master is good for it, as the bankers say, and good in quite a different sense from theirs. But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine. I stand ready to risk my own life, to play the game of thought with it in all earnest; but another’s life I cannot jeopardize. This service is perhaps the only one I can render to Philosophy, I who have no learning to offer her, “scarcely enough for the course at one drachma, to say nothing of the great course at fifty drachmas” (Cratylus). I have only my life, and the instant a difficulty offers I put it in play. Then the dance goes merrily, for my partner is the thought of Death, and is indeed a nimble dancer; every human being, on the other hand, is too heavy for me. Therefore I pray, per deos obsecro: Let no one invite me, for I will not dance.

No slogan, such as “death with dignity” can capture the enormity of what happened to Brittany Maynard and those who loved her, yet that is the fate of all of us, more or less, sooner or later.  Some people are offended by their own mortality, which is the flip side of the “I don’t want God to be God, I want to be God myself” coin.  If there is any dignity to be found in death it’s not because someone makes a choice about it – for in the end none of us has one – nor in some law passed by the state of Oregon that can’t change that simple reality either.

If I had to find something dignified, it would probably be the dying person submitting to fate and giving the death – and therefore the life that preceded it – meaning.  Much meaning.

I have no basis to say that Brittany Maynard didn’t do exactly that.  And maybe the wider discussion about death and its meaning is her dignity in all this.  But reducing her suffering and death to a political slogan just seems an unnecessary final indignity to me.



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2 responses to “Death With Dignity

  1. I agree, there is no dignity in the terrible, protracted suffering of people like Brittany. But I disagree about the slogan. It’s a euphemism for curtailing the misery when there is nothing ahead but death, sooner or later, and no hope for respite from the suffering.

    Perhaps the slogan should be something more accurate than the current one, but the circumstances of her choice are exactly why Oregon is more merciful than most other states.


    • One problem here is that I’m not expressing myself very well. Somewhat atypically, I am finding myself primarily quoting others:

      Sex and death are our constant reminders that for all our pretensions we are still animals; no wonder those uncomfortable with that fact try to disguise and sanitize both of them, to hide them from the children and speak about them in whispers, to bind them in legal codes and bury them under layers of ritual. But no matter how deeply we bury our sexualities they reassert themselves, and no matter how diligently we try to delay death, it will come when it will come. Both are impossible to ignore and impossible to prevent, and human society would be a lot better off if we learned to accept both as indisputable facts of material existence.

      And even there, I both agree and disagree with various aspects of that quote from Maggie McNeil.

      Is the death of any individual a matter of public concern, or purely private concern? Obviously, at the very least it depends. Someone is murdered. That’s a public concern. Someone is 98 years old and dies in their sleep. In some ways that isn’t a matter of “concern” at all.

      Someone else is a beautiful 29 year old woman dying from brain cancer, her name is Brittany Maynard, and her death clearly becomes a matter of public concern. But should it?

      Maybe this is one more or less correct thing I can say: We already have a very impoverished public language about death, for reasons I think I could cite – but not here and now. Slogans are not good conversation starters, at least not where the conversation is delicate or complex.



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