“Dying has become a problem for us,” the professor said, and I laughed, surprised. “For US!”, I replied, “hasn’t dying always been a problem?”
The knowledge of our own mortality is a uniquely human problem. Yom Kippur focuses on it. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) ruminates on it. Artists and poets are haunted by it. Thinkers of every religion, persuasion and era up through 20th century existential philosophy and psychoanalysis wrestled with the challenge of this most fundamental question: how do we live in the light of the certainty and unpredictability of our own death?
Professor Shai Lavi, whose observation about dying took me by surprise, is co-director of the Minerva Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of End of Life at Tel Aviv University, as well as the director of the Van Leer Institute.
As he explained it, until the mid-nineteenth century, death and dying was the province of religion. Then came the medicalization of death, with the physician in charge even when treatment was exhausted and death inevitable. That’s how we arrived at where we are today, with legal and social policies promulgated for euthanasia (assisted suicide) in various parts of Europe and the U.S.
When we can no longer prolong life, we want to control death.
The desire for control may have unintentionally led to ceding the deathbed, once presided over by clergy and family, to policy makers and the legal-scientific complex.
Lavi believes that society’s changing attitudes toward death – which can be seen in heated public policy debates around such issues as abortion and physician-assisted suicide – reflect new and troubling ways of experiencing suffering, hope, and freedom.
The upcoming Yom Kippur holiday confronts us with our mortality not only in its prayers. It is the custom to wear white, the color of shrouds. We experience our weakness as the hours of fasting go by. Yom Kippur dramatically challenges us to deal with death by focusing on life – its fragility and evanescence. We have the unique opportunity to reflect on life’s most fundamental questions: who are we? and who do we want to become in the time we have left?
Shai J. Lavi, The Modern Art of Dying A History of Euthanasia in the United States