In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More states, when his interrogators threaten him with death,Share
Death comes for us all, my lords. Yes, even for Kings he comes, to whom amidst all their Royalty and brute strength he will neither kneel nor make any reverence nor pleasantly desire them to come forth, but roughly grasp them by their very breast and rattle them until they be stark dead.More later reinforces the point: “For our own deaths, my lord, yours and mine, dare we for shame desire to enter the Kingdom with ease, when Our Lord Himself entered with so much pain?”
More’s world was one in which reminders of death were all around, and also one in which most people reflexively accepted the tenets of Christianity, including the knowledge that, in the words of an earlier English playwright, “the Everlasting had . . . fix’d his canon ’gainst self-slaughter.” Our world is different. We believe that life is about maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain, that our bodies belong to us, and that no one can tell us how we should live our lives or end them. We avoid reminders of death whenever we can, and pretend that if we eat the right foods and do the right exercises we can avoid death altogether, or at least avoid a painful death.
The kings of today’s world, the billionaires of Silicon Valley, are funding projects to bring us immortality, as Adam Gollner noted in The Daily Beast in August 2013. Gollner quoted Aubrey de Gray of the Methuselah Foundation, the recipient of some of this largesse, as saying that “the first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today.” De Gray is a pessimist compared with some of the billionaires, one of whom is “100 percent certain” that man will attain immortality by 2045, and another of whom plans to live for “millions, billions, hundreds of billions of years.”
Until 2045, though, we all still need to face death, no matter how we seek to avoid it. And a death in Oregon on November 1 of last year exemplified a way of dying fully in accord with our widespread belief in personal autonomy and the importance of avoiding pain. On that day, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, took 100 capsules of secobarbital, dissolved in water, and died, surrounded by her mother, her stepfather, her husband, and her closest friend. This was the death Maynard had planned; she had moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of Oregon’s law allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of their patients.
The way Maynard prepared for her death was also reflective of modern American thought. After receiving her terminal diagnosis, Maynard traveled to Yellowstone, Alaska, and the Grand Canyon, with the last trip representing the final item on Maynard’s “bucket list.” Maynard also asked her mother and stepfather to remember her by going to Machu Picchu, one of the places Maynard had visited before her diagnosis. As Maynard’s mother told People, “It’s a very sacred spiritual domain. She knows if we can feel her, it will be there.”
Maynard also chose to publicize her death. She was the subject of a cover story in People, featured in a video produced by Compassion & Choices, an organization advocating assisted suicide, and asked to write an opinion piece for CNN explaining her “right to die with dignity at 29.” To date, the online version of the People story has been viewed some 16 million times, and the video has been viewed some 11 million times. Maynard stated, “My dream is that every terminally ill American has access to the choice to die on their [sic] own terms with dignity,” and she took steps to see that this “dream” survived her, working with Compassion & Choices to set up the Brittany Maynard Fund to advocate for assisted suicide in the 45 states where it remains illegal. (Read more.)