Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

Memorial Day and the Right to Die

The poet Auden said “existence is believing we know for whom we mourn, and who is grieving.”

Memorial Day may mean trips to cemeteries to decorate graves, parades with war veterans marching and orations, honor guards and gun salutes.

But times have changed. Wars that ended in victory fade to a more distant past, and memories are fresher of unpopular conflicts that divide our country and perhaps, we think, are a waste of young lives. It is less a day of fanfare than one of quiet memory for loss of the most precious resource of all, for any reason–loved ones, family, friends.

The reason for religion may be the reality that we are all going to die. Yet who believes in facing death? Freud said all of us know we’re going to die, but none of us believes it. And who of us learns from the dying and death around us?
Founders of hospices and memorial societies, and leaders of funeral reform did, and we’re learning to “celebrate” lives of others at the time of their deaths, as often in outdoor, scenic places as in churches and funeral parlors. Cremation too is becoming more normative.

Meaningful literature has addressed death: Agee’s A Death in the Family; de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death; Camus’ The Plague and The Stranger; Huxley’s Time Must Have A Stop; Mann’s Death In Venice; Plath’s Ariel, Sarton’s As We Are Now; Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich; Waugh’s The Loved One; Alvarez’s The Savage God (with emphasis on suicide); Mitford’s The American Way of Death and Kubler-Ross’ Of Death and Dying. But who’s read them? Freud also said that only when death is faced do we have a chance to be truly moral about it.

Perhaps most controversial has been the raising of stakes regarding death and dying in the “right to die” movement, though most of us think we prefer to free ourselves and others from unnecessary pain and from outliving the possibility of quality of life.

The elephant in this room, of course, is Jack Kevorkian. Assisted suicide, in the minds of many, violates the age-old belief that only the giver of life–be it “God” or nature–should also be the taker of life.

Suffering was once viewed the same way till we decided that the only moral and ethical response to pain was to alleviate it in both illness and dying. Yet Kevorkian is seen as a heretic of the worst sort for declaring that we have precisely the same right to determine the hour of our own deaths when suffering is unabated and unredemptive.

So when is suffering unredemptive? It’s long been believed that the death of soldiers redeems the liberty of their nation; and the death of Jesus is held by many to have redeemed believers from eternal death. But where is the good cause, and who else is redeemed, when we suffer unimaginably with disease or illness from which there is no respite, and is clearly terminal?

Again we face changing times and new ideas that challenge our thinking and sensibilities. Yet all of our convictions have been instructed by experience, sometimes painful ones, that make us search for other answers to issues of life and death.

If living well is the best revenge, is not living well also dying well? And instead of pondering what will be after death, should we not inquire whether we can take dying into life?

In dying we lose life and being, and are lost to those who love us. What do we do with that and how do we do it with a sense of meaning? One who chose assisted suicide was a clergyman who said he wanted to give meaning to his death, because his suffering could not, and he did not want it to rob his death of meaning.

Memorial Day can be a time to consider how not to cheapen our present lives. The idea of “hospice” was once strange and controversial as a way of confronting death realistically and allowing both the dying and their survivors to make the most of their last, precious moments. It was also a corrective to what Jessica Mitford said was both a dying process and funeral practices that had come to be an enormous denial of death, not to mention a costly one.

Hospices restored a sense of humanity to dying, and our response to death should always be that of compassion and understanding, not of judgment.

2 Responses to “Memorial Day and the Right to Die”

  1. Another thought-provoking piece. I was once instructed to enter a room with no windows, shut off the light and observe. Of course, I saw nothing. The room was black; there was nothing to see. It was further explained to me that the room and its darkness were the way we comprehend death. There’s nothing to see, therefore we don’t think about it, because there’s nothing to think about. Finis! The End!
    I prefer to conjure a few angels. Nothing better than to believe a few winged sprites hover around, bidding me well. They’ll be there when the lights go out. It beats a dark room.

  2. I hope you don’t mind that I sent this article to the Seers and Seekers Yahoo group:


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