A striking editorial by Lisa Miller appeared in New York Magazine last week about the recent death of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old who had elected (and advocated for the right) to commit suicide after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Miller is less interested in the ethics of Maynard’s decision and more interested in the unprecedented outpouring of adulation it has garnered. Miller tells us, “in the days since she died, [Maynard] has quickly become something more, especially in the ethereal space of social media, where she has risen to the status of a martyr-saint.” Strong words, and Miller rightly theorizes that there’s more going on here than public grief. In her view, the event exposes the current state of our ever-complicated relationship with death, in particular the little-l law against morbidity (akin to what RJ dissected in his piece about hospitals a while back). Thankfully Miller does not ‘blame’ Maynard remotely for what is a tragedy, no matter how you cut it. If anything, she points out how the sadness of the happenstance itself is compounded by the feebleness with which we try to manage it. Oy vey, ht ZW:

05-brittany-maynard.w529.h352Part of the story is the simple tragedy — a young woman, so much of her life ahead of her. But the photo of Maynard that’s being passed around like an icon or a relic — Maynard holding a puppy and wearing a glorious, life-loving smile — shows more than a young woman in happier times. It tells us a lot about the way we relate to death and illness and bodily “dignity.” For starters, when did we first begin treating suicides in the face of terminal illness as heroic acts while viewing suicides facing other sorts of distress as essentially cowardly? The response to Maynard’s suicide demonstrates a peculiar preference that we in the secular West have for martyrs who are beautiful and young — perfect, like children plucked in innocence from life in a car or bicycle accident and memorialized with flower shrines by the side of the road…

Please don’t think I have anything to say about Maynard’s decision to end her life, because I don’t. I’m talking about a nation’s knee-jerk reverence for a young woman we never knew, a tidal wave of empathic grieving that allows us to dwell on the tragic injustice of untimely death while evading the grosser realities of death itself, which in the usual course of events involves shame, ugliness, and suffering. In my personal experience, death has been preceded by a fall on the kitchen floor and then hours of lying there waiting for help. It has meant hospital stays and surgeries and urgent cries for bedpans falling on inattentive ears… Ugliness and helplessness have always been understood to be the part of the deal. The Buddha said it straight-up — “All life is suffering” — and the Torah upholds as its most dignified death that of Abraham, who passed away when he was 175 years old, “at a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” Who knows how many weeks or months of decrepitude preceded this passage?

marynard16n-6-webIn the present-tense context, dignity seems to mean skipping all that, fast-forwarding past the utter dependence, the gibberish, and the bodily fluids — and the pain, of course, not to be discounted — to get straight to the end. Which is understandable, economical, modern, and, in a way, selfless. It’s not just about wanting to avoid the experience of suffering: It’s about not wanting to impose one’s suffering on others. Jesus, bleeding, cried out in agony and loneliness on the cross, and the earliest Christians loved their martyrs burnt, starving, or torn apart and chewed, but in the secular West, dignity has come to mean a kind of existential modesty, a wish not to be seen at one’s worst, at a moment when one might not have the wherewithal to retrieve an appropriate fig leaf for the indecent business that is death…

I’m not someone who believes things were better in the centuries before hospitals and vaccinations, or that there’s any right way to die. My mother was given large doses of morphine in her last days; she was grateful for it then, and I remain so today. Nor am I advocating, necessarily, the “natural” course of things in a world where technology irrefutably makes life — and death — better. I am saying that there’s something overly sanitized in our devotion to Maynard now. Look, she was so beautiful and, poof, now she’s gone. The dignity thing is a red herring, in my opinion, which privileges our voyeurism and consoles the control freaks among us, allowing us to fantasize that in death we can still be young and strong and in charge of outcomes and to look past the bare fact that life and death are unfair, disgusting, and heartbreaking sometimes, and there’s nothing at all to be done about that.

Again, we’re not talking so much about Maynard personally (who warrants nothing but our sympathy), so much as the lionizing response to her act we’ve seen in the media/social media. What Miller describes is a secularized theology of glory, where not even death is allowed to puncture our veneer of beauty or power or control, where “dignity” has becomes a synonym for strength, and self-respect cannot co-exist with weakness (a denial of reality which strikes me as the opposite of dignified). So Miller’s evocation of Christ is both appropriate and highly unexpected; it reminds me not just of the words of Gerhard Forde we posted yesterday about the world–i.e. us–resisting the reality of our limitations, but the story surrounding Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Jacob posted about it a few years ago (a portion of which made it into Tullian’s Glorious Ruin), and it positively floored me. So counterintuitive, especially in our present-day context.


Completed in 1515, just before the Reformation kicked off, the altarpiece was commissioned for the church hospital of St. Anthony in Colmar, France, which specialized in comforting those dying with skin diseases. While most of Gruenewald’s contemporaries were still depicting Calvary with post-Renaissance delicacy, his version was dark and borderline horrific: especially Christ’s smashed feet, His contorted arms, and His twisted hands. The cross is bowed to demonstrate the burden (of sin) Jesus is bearing. The most shocking part of the piece, however, is that Jesus Himself has a skin disease; His loincloth is the same as the wrappings worn by the hospital’s patients.

The altarpiece is a creation of such shocking intensity that many find it repulsive. I know I do. Yet the graphic nature serves to define and illustrate the Antonite brothers’ understanding of Christian ministry–ministry deeply informed by the theology of the cross. Apparently patients were brought before the piece in order to meditate on it as they died. The brothers were a quiet order, so no explanations were provided. There was no awkward chatter, no ‘sharing’, no halfhearted attempts to piously let God off the hook. There was just silence.

P.S. Here’s the sermon on “Personal Eschatology” that came together in the wake of this post: