We sat shiva for the father of a friend recently. That is a grieving ritual, a well worn and thoroughly worked out tradition you could think of as an extended wake. A central facet of any such proceeding is to crystallize and share memories of the departed, cementing the residue of their existence and their nature into the minds of the living. The recountings on this occasion were memorable indeed. The gentleman had a hard life but surmounted his difficulties and took it as his mission that his hard work and endurance would spare his family from the privation that marred his early life. He reached his mid eighties having succeeded in this. But, missing the purpose his recently deceased wife had given his life, racked with pain and gaunt from a cancer that would have killed him in a few weeks, he had gathered his last bit of strength to go out in his garden and shoot himself. He had not acted impulsively, dispatching his ever-present care givers on an errand to provide himself the opportunity. He had been a member of the hemlock society. The note he left was clear and entirely in character: he knew what remained of his days would only be burdensome for all. But despite the purposeful and fitting end of his stay here, his neighbors murmured constantly of the "scandal". This was a man's last willful act and clearly more dignified than the passive default option. All that medicine could do for him at that point was let his consciousness dissolve into a cloud of morphine induced stupor...and take another bite out of any savings he had left. One should not have to beg the right of choice, one should just choose. Many suicides are tragic mistakes but to me, this clearly was not. I have no idea what statistical company this man has among his peers but I doubt he is alone.
What prompts me to blog this event is the reaction of his neighbors. Like many people in his stage of life, he lived in a retirement/assisted living community. His neighbors were his peers and have better cause than any other group to ponder the reality of the reaper patiently waiting at the gates. Why did they all talk in whispers as if it were some terrible sin for the man to take arms against the sea of troubles? My theory is that right to the end, most people can not face mortality honestly. Rather than think through that last bit of life, right to the point where thinking stops, too many leap over that most uncomfortable and most universal inconvenience and think about somehow living for ever.
There is hardly a greater indignity you can impose on those who live in denial of death than to expose their fear of death by purposely ending your own life.
And the indignity is so onerous that those who insist on operating in a state of self administered intellectual anesthesia would invoke law and hellfire to take away the choice rather than deal with that eloquence that can have no rejoinder.