The Proud Duck
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
As Terri Schiavo dies, I keep coming back to the phrase "death with dignity," which figured large in my law school con-law and biothics classes.
I've always been uneasy with the whole phrase "dying with dignity." By my calculation, there have been approximately six truly dignified deaths in the past two thousand years, and I may be overcounting. There's nothing particularly dignified about death, no matter how you try to pretty it up. Really, the things that we say make a "dignified" death are truly rather the last few moments of dignified life. You say a few noble last words, exhale, and then what's left of you starts to go bad immediately. In the modern world, you're likely to be immobilized and helpless flat on your back in a hospital or hospice bed, dependent for your comfort on the kindness of others. The addition or subtraction of a few more or less IVs and tubes hardly makes any difference to the indignity of it all. Even a heroic death on a battlefield is hardly better -- messy stuff tends to splatter everywhere and more likely than not you wind up facedown in mud. As an ocean lifeguard, I performed CPR on a man who had a sudden cardiac arrest on the beach. He was a man who for all I know had lived a wonderful life, but there he was clammy and crusted with sand and frothing with sputum as he died in front of a gawking crowd, with cursing lifeguards and paramedics slamming down on his chest. Nothing dignified about that at all, let me tell you.
Death sucks. It really takes faith (or a mature philosophy, which I believe draws its wisdom from divinity even if it does not acknowledge that Source) to afford the process any kind of dignity at all. Faith and philosophy are incidents of life, not death. Yet the slogan "death with dignity" seems to me to be too often marshaled to diminish those very things, and make man -- the only creature with a capacity for these things -- little more than an old sick cat to be put out of its misery.