What’s the meaning of Dr. Death’s ‘peaceful’, pain-free death?

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Jun 082011

By Terry O’Neill

Following the death of Jack Kevorkian last week, at least two news stories gave prominence to the fact that his lawyer issued a statement describing his client’s passing as “peaceful. “ Lawyer Mayer Morganroth was further quoted as saying his client, “didn’t feel a thing,” and added that no artificial attempts were made to keep Kevorkian alive.

Mr. Morganroth’s statement is significant in light of the monomaniacal focus of Kevorkian’s controversial life: to overturn laws that do not allow people to obtain assistance in killing themselves. Most often, his campaign was associated with terminally ill people who were seeking to avoid a painful or “undignified” death.

One suspects that the lawyer disclosed details surrounding the way in which Kevorkian died because, in part, he anticipated questions which would quite understandably be asked about this crucial event. Just as it’s entirely natural for us to wonder whether the tough-guy gangster holds true to his reputation when he’s being strapped into the electric chair, or whether he turns into a blubbering baby, it is also important for us to know whether Kevorkian, the arch-advocate for pain-free passing, had ended up enduring an uncomfortable or even painful death.

One has the feeling that Mr. Morganroth’s statement was also designed to inform the public that Kevorkian had not been the victim of some sort of cosmic Karma intent on teaching him a last-minute lesson about the untidy nature of death.

Or, perhaps, the good lawyer wanted to assure Kevorkian’s many supporters that the convicted killer had not become a traitor to the “right to die” cause and had willingly endured a painful death.

Left unsaid was whether Kevorkian had received pain-killing drugs to ease his passage. Perhaps this information was intentionally omitted because it could have been seen as a testament to the growing ability of doctors to control the pain that so many terminal patients endure. Ironically, evidence of this expanding expertise is often used by opponents of assisted suicide to bolster their case that there is no need to legalize the “right to die.”

Also notable is lawyer Morganroth’s declaration that no artificial means were used to extend Kevorkian’s life. One wonders what this little tidbit is supposed to signal. Given the arc of Kevorkian’s career, one might conclude that he had issued a standing “do not resuscitate” order that reflected his desire to avoid any painful or depressing complications that might have followed some sort of heroic intervention.

The final thoughts that come to mind are related to the fundamental way in which the lawyer wanted us to view his client’s death. Specifically, one wonders whether Mr. Morganroth was attempting to shape our understanding of what constitutes a “good death.”

Specifically, did he mean for us to conclude that, by not dying in pain and by eschewing “artificial” means to extend his life, Kevorkian died a “good death”? Maybe so.

But the public should not be misled into believing that a pain-free ending, in which one gives oneself up without a struggle, is the only road to a “good death.” Many other ways to die can be at least equally “good.” For example, we regularly talk about how cancer victims “fight” their disease with “courage,” using every means possible to beat back the deadly scourge. Are their subsequent deaths not “good deaths” too? I would think they are.

We’ll give the great poet Dylan Thomas the last word:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rage at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.