The death of death is fast approaching — fast being a matter of decades or maybe more, but sooner or later science will kill the Grim Reaper, and future generations will look back on us and wonder what it was like knowing the end was always coming. We will, no doubt, vanquish death. In the meantime, we will have to deal with it.
Brittany Maynard dealt with it in a sensible and admirable way. She took her own life Saturday, at age 29, because she had incurable brain cancer. She had moved from California to Oregon, one of five states where a physician can legally prescribe drugs to end life peacefully and, in a way, on the patient’s own terms. Maynard would have preferred not to die, but as long as she had to — and there was no hope for her — she sought to avoid the loss of dignity and rationality that too often accompanies death. She wanted to say a dignified goodbye. It ought to be a universal right.
The medical and religious establishments continue to fight back. Death has always been in the domain of religion — the portal to the afterlife promised, or threatened, to us all. Little by little, science and modernity in general have circumscribed religion’s domain, so religion is making its last stand, so to speak, by telling us when we can make ours. As with Maynard, lots of us are not accepting this.
As for physicians, they not only reaffirm the mantra that they are healers, they are haunted by the times when they were not. In Germany, many of them cooperated with the Nazis in the administration of death, not just in the Holocaust but even earlier in the sotto voce euthanasia programs that killed the mentally or physically ill. In the United States, some health professionals participated in programs to sterilize the so-called mentally feeble and, of course, in Alabama black sharecroppers were tricked into enlisting in a hideous medical experiment in which 28 of them were allowed to die, untreated, of syphilis.
You cannot reach a certain age without death becoming a preoccupation. It’s not whether it will happen but how it will happen. We don’t want to suffer; we don’t want our loved ones to suffer. We don’t want to lose our dignity by becoming totally reliant on others and reverting to a kind of infancy. This is not for me — I think, I think. (I’ll tell you more when I get there.)
Inexorably, we are mocking the cliche that death is just a part of life. In his exhilarating new book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” the historian Yuval Noah Harari tells us of King Edward I of England (1239-1307) and his wife, Queen Eleanor (1241-1290). She bore 16 children, of whom 10 died in childhood. Death was so common for our ancestors — even the richest of them — that it was indeed part of life. Now, for a parent to outlive a child is a rare event and a dreadful tragedy.
Harari pushes on. He foresees the death of death: “A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal,” meaning they could always die by accident but not by disease. “For men of science,” he writes later on, “death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem.” (Harari’s book has not yet been published in the United States.)
Once the technical problems are solved, immortality will first be available only to the rich or the well-connected. “Throughout history, the poor and oppressed comforted themselves with the thought that at least death is evenhanded — that the rich and powerful will also die,” Harari writes. We will have to live by a whole new set of rules and expectations. When death dies, so too will heaven and hell — and the comforting myth of eternal equality.
Before that happens, I will die. This is certain and I don’t like it one bit — and I don’t like, either, that future generations will look back and wonder what it was like to live with death, not lots of it but the certainty of it. But as long as it is going to happen, I want my say over it. I want the same control over the end that I have had over what came before it. This is all that Brittany Maynard wanted. I salute her common sense and a courage that, in a fearful time to come, I may well envy.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.