The pro-death lobby endlessly invokes the slogan that euthanasia promotes “death with dignity”.
It may be argued that deathis never dignified, and “death with dignity” is only a futile euphemism. Great Christian writer C.S. Lewis called it “a howling horror, a stinking indignity”, although it is a fact that with modern medical care many of the worst and most painful aspects of the various forms of dying can be greatly mitigated or prevented altogether.
Of course, death with noble bravery, or even conscious martyrdom, like the Christian murdered for refusing to renounce the faith, or by deliberate sacrifice, like the soldier who saves his platoon by throwing himself on an enemy grenade, is another matter, and this confers dignity upon the person, but this is not what the “death with dignity” lobby has in mind.
Of course there are many other objections to euthanasia, or assisted suicide, such as that it is sometimes a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and, furthermore, in countries such as Belgium and Holland, where voluntary euthanasia has been brought in, it has not stayed voluntary. However, it is the mantra of “death with dignity” that concerns us here.
For Christians, there is another matter to be considered: Christianity has never advocated “death with dignity” as a supreme good, or even shown interest in it. Christ’s own death was just about as undignified as possible – jeered at by the mob, whipped, crowned with thorns, naked, nailed to a cross, crying out in despair, “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me!” To be fully a Man as well as a God, he had to know pain, indignity and despair.
For a Christian, it might appear that God the Father had intended Christ’s death to be as undignified as possible. When one considers the deaths of various great men down the ages, a more undignified death than that of Christ is virtually impossible to find or even imagine.
For the Christian, death is not made dignified, it is conquered. Set against the despair of the cross, there is the empty tomb.
Advocacy of “death with dignity” is not to be found in the writings of the apostles or of the early Christian fathers, though of course it goes without saying that the dying should be treated with the greatest dignity, kindness and consideration possible. This is simply an implication of Christianity. Fortunately, with modern medicine, pain-relief is well advanced.
However, the question of death with dignity – or rather, with indignity – can be real in another sense. Many children (I know. I was one) have an instinctive horror of skulls and skeletons. This may be in part because they are a manifestation of death (I know one sad little cockroach who called Internet wag and columnist Tim Blair pornographic because he once edited the Melbourne Truth, which, if not particularly refined, can at least be seen with its topless ladies as a manifestation of life).
Although the Venus of Cyrene has lost her head and her arms, I feel sorry for anyone who does not see pure beauty in her perfection; surely the loveliest statue of antiquity to survive, and a manifestation of life, even in marble.
G.K. Chesterton, in his early collection of essays, The Defendant, published a defence of skeletons. They were, he pointed out among other things, always laughing, and furthermore, there was at least one of them that we couldn’t run away from, anyway.
Now I disagree with G.K.C. with the greatest trepidation. I truly love much of his work, and The Ballad of the White Horse and The Everlasting Man were literally life-changing experiences for me. But on the matter of skeletons, I disagree (I remember a comedy sketch of two S.S. officers. One pointed to the skulls on their caps and asked with dawning shock, “Does this mean we’re the bad guys?” Yes, it did).
Show me a culture that decorates skulls without any transcendent purpose save to celebrate death (this of course excepts the memento mori, again a different matter), and I will show you one that is diseased.
But I think the skeleton, whether lying on a desert sand dune, its skull offering a shady apartment for a viper, or surrounded by butterflies and singing birds in a green forest, or brooding, as they so often do, over a pirates’ treasure, or in a shattered sarcophagus or even wired up usefully in an anatomy school (although this is again a different matter), is not merely a manifestation of death. It is a manifestation of lonely death, without fellow creatures to give it a decent burial, or to offer the dying individual any religious or other comforts. There is something brutal and horrifying in its exposure.
I have seen skeletons, presumably those of minor or obscure saints, displayed in Bavarian churches, bound up with gold wire. Somehow, grotesque as I found them, there was nothing horrible about them, exactly.
I thought this over, and came to the conclusion that, unlike the thing leering up from sand dune or forest glade, their fellow creatures had cared about them.
I thought that the fact that probably no member of the congregation today remembered whatever it was that had earned them sainthood was irrelevant. Whatever great good they had done in life, they had done it and they had gone to their reward, leaving their bones for the edification of future generations. No skull-and-cross-bones were ever so flaunted by any pirate revelling in his gold. But I still prefer the Venus of Cyrene.