Do you remember the famous line from Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me…”? I thought about that line last week upon hearing last week that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died at age 83. Of natural causes, it should be added.
Kevorkian, of course, was infamous for his advocacy for physician-assisted suicide. He himself was a pathologist (his critics might say he was pathological), so he knew something about death as a doctor. He spent eight years in prison for acting on his conviction that it’s the duty of doctors to alleviate the suffering of the terminally ill by helping them die.
Whether you agree with Kevorkian or not — and I don’t — you could argue that he at least brought the issue of end-of-life suffering to the public attention. The problem is that he actually won people over to his point of view. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he tapped into a latent stream of thought in society that believes suffering is to be avoided at all costs, even if it means giving your doctor license to kill you. The interesting thing is that very, very few people took advantage of this in the places where it actually became legal.
You can read a CNN story about Kevorkian’s demise and reactions to it here.
In contrast to Kevorkian’s philosophy, there is the view of my former teacher at Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas. I just saw a Q&A with Stan today on the United Methodist Reporter site, in which he talks about a “good death” also, but of a very different kind than what Kevorkian advocated.
In his characteristically provocative way, Stan says our society’s ideas about death have gone far astray: “In America death has unfortunately become associated with: You’re dead when your doctor can no longer do anything for you. I want to think that our deaths can be claimed as part of a community of friends that are able to be present to us as we die. That means that you don’t have to do everything necessary to keep your body alive.”
Stan makes the fascinating point that we have not only asked too much of physicians, we have given them too much power and authority. When he asks people how they want to die, he says, they say: “They want to die painlessly, in their sleep, and quickly because when they die they don’t want to have to know they’re dying. So now they ask physicians to keep them alive to the point that when they die they don’t have to know they’re dying—and then they blame physicians for keeping them alive to no point.”
So the responsibility then becomes ours to know how to be sick and to know how to die well. To accept our mortality gracefully, not to hasten it but not to avoid it. That’s where Kevorkian and his supporters missed the point. When there is faith and community, suffering and death decrease in importance. And Dr. Kevorkian’s services are not needed.
At least he didn’t use them on himself. So, rest in peace, Dr. K. And may your philosophy rest in peace with you.