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To speak of deaths as purposeful or useless is to highlight the value accorded to them But such distinctions can become problematic in cases such as still-births and apparently untimely death through accident or illness In many societies still-births and even the death of infants have often been passed over with a minimum of ceremony or have not even been marked at all In today s rich societies people have few children and pregnancies are largely planned, with children being given a rm identity while still in the womb Such bene ts of advanced technology as ultrasound scanning and the like make baby-deaths more signi cant than ever before Similarly with the death of young people due to accident or some misfortune when relatives devotedly seek the cause so that, as the popularly powerful expression has it, it may never happen again In this way what is, otherwise, a meaningless death is given some semblance of potential purpose Something similar happens when organs from an accidental death of a young person are given to seriously ill people Where younger people die from illness it is not uncommon for their family to become committed to support groups for similarly bereaved people, often with the intention of fostering research into that particular fatal illness This, too, seeks to bring a degree of meaning to the death in societies where risk to life is Purposeful and Useless Death 159
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much less than in many underdeveloped societies or in the history of their own society Different social classes or occupational groups also possess a varying sense of risk in life since existence is, generally, much safer for the rich than for the poor One of the tragedies of today s world is that death is treated as a cause of concern in some contexts while in others the warfare and sickness killing millions pass practically unnoticed The relative worth of life differs, not least in terms of how the media decide to comment or not Indeed, a signi cant aspect of the presence of death in the early twenty- rst century is that of the media and their power to advertise or ignore as they see t For them newsworthiness replaces any sense of life-worthiness or the degree of risk of life and limb
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Suicide Euthanasia
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One category of death that is particularly problematic for relatively risk-free societies is suicide At the individual, family and community level a suicide often prompts much soul-searching and discussion of why the person may have killed him or herself While there is, sometimes, an apparently obvious reason, on many occasions there is none, which calls into question the reasonableness of life itself The problematic nature of suicide is evident in Christianity since, by about the sixth century, it was deplored and led to the custom of not burying suicides in consecrated cemeteries, even though some sympathetic clergy may have done so Suicide became a sin; it even passed into secular law and it was not until 1961, for example, that it ceased to be an offence in England However, even by the seventeenth century the English poet and Dean of St Paul s Cathedral, John Donne, was re ecting seriously on the impropriety of denouncing suicides (Clebsch 1983) For Donne the mercy and grace of God should not be overlooked, nor should it be so easily assumed that all people sought self-preservation at all costs, a view that was 160 Purposeful and Useless Death
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largely followed in the major stream of Catholic tradition which also views God as the master of life and humans as stewards of it Suicide contradicts both the proper love one should have for oneself and the bonds of community that exist between people Even so, Catholic teaching does not render suicide meaningless Not only does it offer the possibility that a person may be psychologically disturbed or in a state of diminished responsibility but also, by ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance , with the Church also prepared to pray for such individuals Philosophers, too, from Plato to David Hume and Albert Camus, have re ected upon the place of freedom of thought and action implicated in suicide The in uential American anthropologist Ruth Benedict dwelt much upon death and when she thought about her own she wanted to be alert to this next experience in life (Modell 1984: 311) One of her ideals was of balance and ful lment, prompting her wishing for death but not being in favour of suicide because it was a cheap way of attaining the otherwise desirable goal While, at the individual level, suicide may be unfathomable, at a social level some degree of regularity may be observed This was an important point made by Emile Durkheim s Suicide published in 1897, which contributed enormously to developing a eld of suicide studies He suggested three forms of suicide, egoistic in which persons were insuf ciently networked into society, altruistic in which people could not cope with the intense social control surrounding them, and anomic suicide in which someone is overwhelmed by the powerful organization of society, not least its economic power Though much criticized and with many later forms being suggested by others, Durkheim s work stresses the social factors framing any individual predisposition Van Gennep brie y notes the signi cance of suicide and follows an earlier scheme of R Lasch who identi ed four conditions: where suicide was treated like other forms of death, where it was rewarded, as with warriors or widows, where it left a Purposeful and Useless Death 161
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person to wander between the realms of the living and the dead, and nally where suicide was punished in the next life (van Gennep 1960: 161 citing Lasch 1900: 110 15) Major issues of the late twentieth century that are set to develop a great deal are those of assisted suicide and euthanasia, for there is a growing body of opinion that sees a right to die as part of one s human rights The alternative view that God alone is responsible for giving and taking life closely resembles its secular variant, viz, that society possesses that right Some couch the argument against assisted suicide in terms of the slippery slope whereby either doctors will wish to terminate the lives of some or else the very old or in rm, already alluded to in terms of inhabiting a non-space , will feel obliged to die lest they be a burden upon their relatives As increasing numbers of people think of themselves as consumers possessing a great deal of choice and self-determination they are likely to apply that elective attitude to their own life and death Just as death rites are likely to move further away from religious control so, in time, it is likely that decisions to live or die, especially in contexts of interminable suffering and a sense of indignity, will become more personal
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