Brittany Maynard and the Cult of the Ideal Death

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Brittany Maynard was just 29 on November 1, the day she took the prescription medicine that ended her life and cut short what promised to be an ugly battle with brain cancer. In the weeks leading up to that date, she had become an advocate for the right to suicide in the face of terminal illness — making videos explaining her decision and crossing items off her bucket list. But in the days since she died, she has quickly become something more, especially in the ethereal space of social media, where she has risen to the status of a martyr-saint. On my Facebook feed and on Twitter, in articles passed around friend-to-friend, I’ve watched Maynard be called courageous, inspirational, an angel; she is resting with the stars, her admirers say. For an unknown woman, especially, facing a difficult disease, cancer, that nevertheless kills almost 600,000 people annually, choosing to end her own life before the disease does it for her, like countless thousands who refuse nourishment in the end and “turn their face to the wall,” it has been an astonishing outpouring of reverence and support.

Part 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. The nation adores her for insisting on “dignity” in the face of death, but what exactly was she preserving by cutting her own life short? What was it that the Christian spiritual writer Anne Lamott was praising when she re-posted Maynard’s final Facebook comment on her own Twitter feed and added “Wow”?

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. Death is the culmination of weeks of puking and dribbling or starving or whining in pain, yes, and having your mouth swabbed out with sponges and being naked and desiccated in front of people who don’t know you at all. And that’s if you’re lucky — if you can afford good care and a hospital bed in the house and can be surrounded in your last days and hours by friends and family who will look you in the eye or kiss your forehead and whisper they love you even when you’ve become unrecognizable to them, a waxy, yellowing pre-corpse. 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?

In 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.

It was around the time of the Civil War that people began to sentimentalize the dead, to imagine them as perfect and alive — an eternally enduring snapshot of themselves, as though death had not changed them at all. So many beloved and beautiful men had died young — so many boyfriends and brothers and fathers and sons — and with dignity, too, for a greater cause. It was impossible to think of them in their final, gruesome, agonizing moments or to feel consoled by the Christianity that the Puritans insisted on, that life was suffering, toil, and hardship, mediated, if one were fortunate enough, by a remote and abstract afterlife of residence. One of the best-selling books of the 19th century, surpassed only by the Bible and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was The Gates Ajar, a novel that refuted that old Puritan ideal. A young woman named Mary, grieving over the death of her brother Roy in the war, is visited by an aunt who teaches her that Roy exists still, somewhere nearby, and that when she ascends to heaven she will see “the sparkle in his eye and listen to his laughing voice.” A nation found comfort in the idea that a young man who died too soon might be whisked from one perfect state to another, with no excruciating passage in between. The character of Peter Pan, written at the beginning of the 20th century by the Scottish author J.M. Barrie, was based on the author’s older brother, who died in an ice-skating accident when he was 14. Their mother said her child “never grew up.”

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.  

Brittany Maynard and the Cult of the Ideal Death