A lesson in dying
By Andrew Vickers
Wednesday marked the 45th anniversary of Thich Quang Duc's decision
to have himself doused in gasoline and set on fire to protest the
oppressive policies of South Vietnamese President Ngo Diem's
government (not, as many believe, to protest the Vietnam War). The
Buddhist monk's final sacrifice was immortalized by Malcolm Brown's
Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (Generation Y may remember it from
the cover of Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut), and it
has seared itself into the public's consciousness as the desperate,
ultimate act of self-immolation against the invulnerable forces of
government that seem to constantly overwhelm the power of the
individual. Duc's dramatic death, whether or not people agreed with
his politics and methods, has meant something enduring and truly
special to the world.
But death, as they say, just isn't what it used to be. At 6:30 a.m.
on November 3, 2006, Malachi Ritscher, a mostly unemployed
"experimental" musician, stood by an off-ramp in downtown Chicago
near a statue of a giant flame, set up a video camera, doused himself
with gasoline and lit himself on fire. Hoping to make a statement to
morning commuters about the "barbarism" of the Iraq war and our own
implication as taxpayers in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of
Iraqi civilians and thousands of American soldiers (and private
contractors), Ritscher instead became nothing more than a sideshow
nuisance to a population eager to get to work and annoyed by the
extra traffic his spectacular death was causing. So it goes.
American society has a problem with confronting the reality of death.
We live in an age that glosses over or ignores the reports of the
thousands who die each day in cities, conflicts or countries that
aren't "important" enough to merit the attention of CNN or Fox News.
Even as "natural" death has been sterilized and largely removed from
the public eye by modern medicine and hospital care, we are
desensitized nightly to most unnatural deaths (chokings, stabbings,
shootings) by their frequent appearance on our favorite news
programs, movies and TV shows. Hell, flamethrowers and nail guns have
even become just another part of the arsenal of our most popular
video game protagonists.
It is this societal dissonance towards the most universal of human
acts that makes Dr. Debbie Volker's research (featured on the
University's Web site this week) concerning the final wishes of the
sick or dying so interesting - and so pertinent.
Volker points out that as our population continues to age, the
ability of people to die with dignity will become an increasingly
important issue. Unfortunately, the mounting pressures of modern life
and the growing geographical and personal separation between family
and friends mean we are likely to have less control (and thus,
according to Volker, less dignity) over our own deaths than we would
want. And by removing the experience of normal death from the public
domain, we make it difficult for people to properly adapt themselves
to the natural grieving process.
Though we admit to usually feeling as invulnerable as the next
20-something college students, as our grandparents and parents begin
to show signs of age, it's hard not to think about the "end of life"
decisions we often take for granted. For most of history, people
would be born, live and die in the same house, neighborhood or city,
surrounded by a constant cast of family and friends. When someone
died like this, completing the natural cycle in familiar
circumstances, it was probably a little easier to celebrate the
passing of a life well-lived. It also meant that people saw death in
foreign lands or for important causes to be an extraordinary
sacrifice - not just cheap fodder for cable news networks. Now most
people can expect to end their lives in the relative discomfort (at
least aesthetically) of an alien hospital bed, surrounded by
unfamiliar machines or tubes dedicated to the faint hope that modern
medicine can defeat, or at least prolong, the inevitable. The
incredible efforts and ability of our health care professionals can
work miracles, but it also risks denying closure for lives well-lived.
Forty-five years ago, the image of Thich Quang Duc's flaming demise
shocked the world and forced people to pay attention to the
oppression of the Vietnamese people. 20 months ago, Ritscher's
self-sacrifice against the war in Iraq was seen as nothing more than
a misguided stunt, just another spectacular news item to momentarily
titillate a desensitized, disinterested audience.
As college students, we're rightfully accustomed to thinking about
what we want in life. It wouldn't kill us, however, to think a little
about what we want from death - if not of our own death just yet,
then at least about those of other people. Too often we forget that
the wars we allow our representatives to wage, the murders we
casually ignore on the evening news and the horrific car accidents
that we curse for slowing us down on our way to work, usually
represent uncontrollable deaths we could never imagine for ourselves.
We would do well to remember that each of those tallies in the
newspaper was a living, breathing person who made a difference in a
world that must now keep moving forward without the unique and
valuable experiences of that one life. Whether a person dies in a
blaze set by a little match and a lot of faith, or quietly surrounded
by friends and family, let's always hope they ended their lives in
the same way we hope to someday end our own - at peace with their
time in this world and its purpose, and in a manner of their own choosing.