Contemplating the Death of Jack (by Caleb Wilde)
Dr. Jack passed away this month. He died a natural death (as far as we know).
Euthanasia – the word that is often linked to Kevorkian — simply means “a good death“, although it’s meaning has changed and it now insinuates ”a deliberate death.” I think I speak for most of us when I say that I want a good death, devoid of intense pain, suffering and agony. “I hope the Lord takes me in my sleep” comes out of the aged mouths of many I talk with at the funeral home.
I’ve seen the results of “bad deaths”, where the body of the deceased looks as though it’s been through Auschwitz … where the body itself becomes an icon of pain and suffering. Cancer is the Nazi concentration camp of death and I don’t think any of us would like to go there.
Active, voluntary physician assisted suicide – the kind that Dr. Jack accomplished for 130 of his patients — is another thing altogether. And although I disagree with it, I understand it. I understand why a person who’s terminally ill would rather face “death with dignity” (physician assisted suicide) than have to suffer months of uncontrolled bowel movements, loss of faculties and a wasting away to nothing … ALL OF WHICH IS OFTEN DONE IN ISOLATION!
I can also understand it – that is – from the standpoint of a culture of independence and isolation. In communitarian societies, dying well is dying with your family and friends surrounding you in their love. In the West, dying well is dying on your own terms.
Active, voluntary physician assisted suicide makes sense when the individual is placed at the center. It relieves pain, keeps the individual away from the embarrassment of dependence; but what happens when family and community is placed at the center? I think an argument can still be made for assisted suicide, but it becomes much weaker.
When community is at the center of death, the end stage of life becomes not an embarrassment of dependence, but a beautiful display of love … a time when the community shines forth its compassion, care and giving. I know this isn’t an either /or argument, as though death is either individual or communal, but when you have good community and you’re terminal, there are few things that display the beauty of community than the end stage of life.
I’ve seen it and let me say that while death is always somehow painful, it’s not always ugly. There’s few things that move me more than seeing the loving care of a family who have utterly surrounded their loved one in both the dying and in the death.
Assisted suicide never allows the community to paint the picture of love and care. It stifles artistry.
So here’s my main point: the “good death” isn’t ultimately defined by one’s lack of pain, but by one’s family and friends. The good, terminal sickness is defined by having family over 24/7, sharing the experience, sharing your words of love through actions.
Sadly, the reality is this: we live in an individualistic society where families would rather hire others to care for their loved ones (I do understand that at times this is necessary) than take the time to care for the aging themselves. Too often we squander the wealth of the old by putting them in nursing homes, and in effect we give away both the monetary inheritance and the inheritance of community and wisdom that comes with caring for our own.
So while it may be true that I don’t agree with assisted suicide, I can’t help but think that Jack is a prophet. He foresaw the future of death in the West … he foresaw the logical conclusion of our individualistic emphasis and desire for control.
And maybe Jack’s prolepsis did something amazing … maybe his view of the future of death actually created community! Maybe his highlighting terminal patient’s pain caused his opponents to invest their resources into Hospice care? Maybe, it was Kevorkian’s vision of the future that caused the community to react to his prophetic vision?
Death has a way of bringing people together in a beautiful way. And oddly enough … ironically … maybe Jack the prophet spurred the growth of community around the death bed like Jonah’s prophecy changed the course of Nineveh.
Caleb Wilde is a sixth generation, licensed funeral director who practices in Pennsylvania, and he’s also a graduate of Biblical seminary. Visit his website at www.calebwilde.com.