The Face of Death

The Face of Death

Many years ago, a young Monsignor was laying on his hospital gurney, only partly sedated, when his mentor, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, approached him on the way to the operating room. He devoutly said: Richard, let us pray to St. Joseph for deliverance and a successful operation. Ever the wit, the future Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, Richard Stika cautioned Archbishop Justin Rigali. Could we not pray to another saint, since St. Joseph was the Patron of a Happy Death? The patient was probably hoping they could pray to St. John of God, the patron saint of heart patients.     

Today, very few speak of a happy death. Our secular culture has replaced it with something they call a good death. Given the Left’s penchant for euphemisms that hide an evil component of what they propose for anyone on either side of the life spectrum, it is necessary that people have a deep understanding of what this means within the context of the major life issues.

After a cursory search, I have found little agreement about what constitutes good death or successful dying. I did find an interesting survey of published studies on the subject of death and dying. Participants in these articles included patients, prebereaved and bereaved family members, and healthcare providers. The studies were categorized into core themes and subthemes and the frequency of each theme was determined by stakeholder (patients), family and their Health Care Providers’ perspectives. However many of these studies seem to contradict themselves, leading to an even greater confusion.

I also surveyed the literature on the idea of the good death. Many memoirs describe positive approaches to dying. For example, in Tuesdays with Morrie, author Mitch Albom visited with his former Sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who provides lessons on acceptance, communication, and love in the midst of his dying process. Similarly, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning describes his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp that led to his finding meaning during times of suffering and death. 

Also, in The Last Lecture, after being diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, Randy Pausch discusses, how to truly live and embrace every moment because time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think. Finally, in his commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs, after his recent diagnosis of cancer, called death very likely the single best invention of life and described focusing on what was most important and meaningful to him as he confronted death. These literary examples illustrate various constructs, though somewhat ambiguous, of a good death or dying well.

The real problem with death and dying, aside from one’s attitude, is the means of death. They can easily be reduced to acceptance of a natural decline or extraordinary means to hasten even a good death. Journalist Marilyn Webb’s, 1999 book, Good Death was the first full-scale examination of the profound change in the way Americans think about and confront death. Six years in the making, she built her account around intimate portraits of the dying themselves. She explains why some deaths become shockingly difficult–and needlessly painful–and how the struggles over end-of-life decisions can pit patient and family against hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, religious groups, and the law. But Webb ended on a positive note when she wrote by describing many extraordinary programs and individuals who were changing the ‘face of dying’.

In an essay for Psychology Today, Dr. Marilyn Mendoza personalized the relativity of thinking that dominates this controversial issue. Most people would feel that a peaceful, painless death would be considered good. A bad death would be one in which violence, severe pain, torture, dying alone, being kept alive against your wishes, loss of dignity and being unable to let your wishes be known. Notice the emphasis on a person’s autonomy or choiceWhat one chooses as a good death is subjective and should be based on the wants and needs of the one dying. Religious instruction on dying does not seem to be relevant to her. Her conclusions do not conform with Christian thinking on death and dying.

There is also another faction of people who believe that calling a death good is a value judgement that might not necessarily belong to the patient. This statement should be a clarion call for concern, especially among those who emphasize a patient’s autonomy. A newer model for working with the dying is called a Respectful Death. This model addresses the multitude of factors, often outside the control of the patient that affect the eventual decision-making process. In this chilling model, not only the patient, but the family and professionals combine to work and support each other with the goal of improving end-of-life care so as to achieve the best possible outcome for the dying. This model seems ripe for personal abuse. Sadly, this is too often the case. Decisions are often made unilaterally without necessarily considering what the dying want or need. This is a very good reason all of us should have Advanced Directives, based on Church teachings.  

For several years, the language of death has been based on the same arguments of the abortion issue. Phrases such as autonomy, choice and death with dignity sound more like fraternal twins with abortion in the Culture of Death. The Good Death, then might just be a lupine phrase that disguises the wolf in the fleece clothing of a sheep. Eight states have already passed laws allowing doctor-assisted suicide, although a judge recently overturned California’s 3-year-old law. Conversations about death, once taboo, are now held around the world at so-called Death Cafes. Before former first lady Barbara Bush died in April, she received support on social media when she decided to forgo further medical treatments. This is not wrong in itself. The former first lady preferred to endure a natural death, not prolong her suffering. Of course, if she agreed to withhold all food and water; hers was not a natural death but a forced exit.

When the medical profession is enlisted, the matter quickly becomes their choice and not even the heirs who might really want to keep their relative alive. This once illegal act used to be called euphemistically mercy killing but now it is ending a life that has lost its meaning according to the reigning secular culture. Popular issues such as man’s alleged role in global climate change, overpopulation and the sustainability of the earth often give apocalyptic cover to doctors and hospital administrators to pull the plug on grandpa or grandma for a higher cause. 

Another article I found on WEBMD, though very positive in tone, did not hesitate to refrain from the standard euphemisms. After a Colorado couple pleaded for help through local media, a doctor contacted them and made a house call, to diagnose the wife. He concluded that she met the criteria under the new law: a prognosis of less than 6 months to live and sound mental capacity. A second doctor confirmed it as required by the law. On March 12, 2017, the husband emptied 100 capsules of Seconal into a glass of Gatorade. They held hands as she drifted into unconsciousness. A hospice nurse confirmed she was dead. It was very gentle and very quick. She would’ve been 63 the next day. Life had lost its meaning for her because it was no longer fun and interesting but had been plagued by pain and discomfort.

In the first year of Colorado’s law, 69 people were prescribed aid-in-dying drugs by 37 different doctors, and 78% of them were able to die at home, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Nationwide, the movement has come a long way since Jack Kevorkian was sent to prison in 1999 for assisting in patient suicides. In 1994 Oregon became the first state to pass an aid-in-dying law, which has been used more than 1,000 times

A few years ago, I read where many older people, who were not seriously ill, were afraid to go to the hospitals in the Netherlands because they heard that many patients were being involuntary euthanized. While this is not universally true, there are many more cases of direct euthanasia or assisted suicide in many Western countries, including Canada. According to a recent edition of the National Catholic Journal, the number of Canadians who ended their lives by euthanasia and assisted suicide increased by 17% in 2020, according to the he country’s health department.

According to Abby Hoffman, assistant deputy minister of Health Canada, 7,595 people received medically assisted deaths last year, a figure which amounts to 2.5% of all deaths in Canada for the year. . The increase in physician-assisted deaths occurred prior to passage of a law that could greatly expand the number of patients requesting euthanasia. Bill C-7, which eliminated the requirement that a patient’s death be reasonably foreseeable in order for lethal drugs to be prescribed them, became law in March 2021. 

The Bill Number C-7 prompted me to think of Adolph Hitler’s T4 Program in the thirties. Aktion T4 was a campaign of mass murder by involuntary euthanasia. The name T4 is an abbreviation of #4 Tiergartenstrasse, the street address of the Berlin Chancellery. Hand-picked German physicians were authorized to select patients deemed incurably sick, after most critical medical examination and then administer to them a mercy death. The exterminations took place from September 1939 until the end of the war in 1945. During this time, from 275,000 to 300,000 people were killed in psychiatric hospitals in Germany and Austria, occupied Poland and parts of the future Czech Republic. Several reasons have been suggested for the murders, including  eugenics, racial hygiene and treatment costs. Hitler felt that too many resources were wasted on these people, who were useless eaters whose lives were unworthy of life and a drain on the German economy. Is it so farfetched to think this could eventually happen here?

The heart of this matter revolves around the decline of organized religion in the West. In a world that derives its personal and group morality from Positivism and secular relativism, virtually anything a powerful government wants can and usually happens. Nowhere in this debate could I find any ideas on death that flowed from the traditional religious views on salvation, the virtues of suffering and the sacredness of human life. This can be explained by the fact that secularism denounces any Christian teachings as antediluvian and polarizing. To paraphrase Fyodor Dostoevsky and G. K. Chesterton, when the world rejects God, people will believe anything and the protection of innocent life will disappear. 

All this could not have happened without Charles Darwin. His seminal theory of Evolution was largely responsible for the growth of secular humanism on a global scale. It was the missing link, the Left needed to eliminate the Creator from the human equation, even though it has always been a theory and not a provable fact. Evolution is now accepted as scientific gospel, as is so-called Man-Made Climate Change. Neither of these theories has any place in the Scientific Canon.

While Darwin bore no similarity to TV’s Archie Bunker, he did keep this assault on human life all in the family. It fell to his cousin, Sir Francis Galton, to develop another iconoclastic science, called Eugenics, a phrase he coined in 1883. Eugenics literally means well-born. It is not difficult to see this in the progressive elite who have run things for over a century.

A Victorian scientist, Galton’s career can be divided into two parts. During the first part, he explored African exploration, wrote about his travels, geography, and meteorology. His world changed during the second part, thanks largely to his cousin’s book, The Origin of Species, published in 1859. The book convinced Galton that humanity could be improved through selective breeding, not unlike what is done with livestock. 

Through his negative eugenics and race degeneration, Galton ventured into the dark underbelly of humanity. During this part of his career, he specifically focused on the factors that determined human talent and character and their hereditary basis. He also founded the field of biometrics, inventing such familiar statistical procedures as correlation and regression analysis. It can be argued that he reduced mankind to a series of impersonal numbers, similar to what analytics and algorithms have done to the game of baseball.  

At a time when the working-class poor were reproducing at a greater rate than the more successful classes of society, Darwin’s theories garnered considerable interest. Both Survival of the Fittest and Social Darwinism, were powerful derivatives of his thinking. These societal applications came from ideas, conceived by polymath Herbert Spencer. One of the most important proponents of Spencer’s ideas occupied the White House. President Theodore Roosevelt used Spencerian thinking to foster an imperial advancement in the world. The President was a physical fitness buff since his adolescents. It was fitting then, that he should lead those who warned the American public that the failure of couples of Anglo-Saxon heritage to produce large families would eventually lead to race suicide.  

It is a truism that both Darwin’s evolution and Galton’s eugenics are at the root of the decline of the Christian belief that man was made in the image and likeness of God. In fact, metaphysical teaching has been replaced by a scientific reduction of mankind to the level of primates, such as apes. As a result the progressive elite believes it has carte blanche as an apocalyptic threat to expand abortion, euthanasia, and global sustainability, under the bloody mantel of man-man climate change. The world’s lifeboat is overloaded and must be reduced radically. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood grew up in this progressive milieu and was quite determined to do her part to reduce the populations of what she termed, mongrel races, people primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe and Africa. 

Consequently, the transition from a happy death to a good death underscores how this world view on birth and dying has radically changed over the course of more than a century. We have descended from a religious-oriented society to one that relies heavily on Science as its ruling god. It also highlights the battlefield for life as much broader than just abortion as the Culture of Death has expanded exponentially to include all humans who do not live up to the progressive standards of having the right quality of life. Yes, it is a brave new world we as approach our future, heavily laden with 1984 overtones. 

And finally what struck me most was Webb’s conclusion that stated programs today have changed the face of death. This led me to imagine just whose face would be under our more positive death mask. Would it be Jesus Christ? The Grim Reaper with his scythe? Or Jack Kerkorian, Dr. Death himself? 

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Written by
William Borst