Best-Ever Discussion of Death and Dying

Cover of April 2014 Sun MagazineThe Sun has come through yet again with a paradigm-shifting, life-changing chunk of exquisite prose.

The Sun’s April 2014 issue contains an interview entitled “The Long Goodbye: Katy Butler on How Modern Medicine Decreases Our Chance of a Good Death.”

Immediately following this amazing interview (conducted by Sam Mowe) is an equally impressive four-page excerpt from Butler’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death (Scribner, 2013).

This magazine’s introduction to the wisdom of the unusually sensible as well as unusually articulate Katy Butler is one of many, many, many reasons The Sun remains, year in and year out, my favorite magazine. (It always wins out in my periodically conducted thought experiment about which of my two favorite magazines – the other is The New Yorker – is my true favorite.) 

Like The New Yorker, I began subscribing to The Sun decades ago and eagerly await its arrival every month. The Sun is so consistently brave in the subjects it tackles and the quality of its innards is so consistently higher than anything else I read (in print or on the Intertubes) that I never stop fantasizing that eventually everyone I know and care about will begin subscribing also.

Katy ButlerBe that as it may, if there’s only one article you will force yourself to read about death and dying this year, let it be this one. Like me, you may end up making copies and sending it to your loved ones. (Or maybe even giving them a gift subscription to The Sun?)

Bloggers are repeatedly advised to include photos in every blogpost they write. Hence the photos of the magazine cover and of this month’s interviewee.

One thought on “Best-Ever Discussion of Death and Dying

  1. Another good blog. My blog-back-at-you is below.

    The article was very well-written and excellent for anyone to read. Strangely enough, since my family didn’€™t talk about a lot of things, death and dying was actually one that we had talked about.

    Both my parents had written “€œDo Not Resuscitate”“ documents, for example. Plus, being raised a Catholic, I had grown up hearing about the Church’€™s ideas on life and death and “€œordinary”€ and “€œextraordinary”€ means of preserving life just as a general part of what we learned. I grew up having heard the Church’s idea that you should take ordinary means to preserve your life but you did not have to take extraordinary means -€“ you could “€œjust say no”€ to heart surgeries at the age of 85 or aggressive and experimental cancer treatments, etc. That was something that we just grew up hearing about.

    The Catholic Church has been yammering about this for centuries. I thought I’€™d better check my memory on this topic and so did a quick Google search and found a philosophical take on it on one website; a quote from that site is below.

    The existence of a ‘positive’ moral duty of caring for health and life -€” one’s own and another’s -€” has been recognized since the origins of Christianity. Already in the writings of Saint Basil (329-379) we find paragraphs destined to praise the art of medicine as a divine gift that permits us to heal the sick. Nevertheless, having medicine in mind, Saint Basil condemned “whatever requires an undue amount of thought or trouble or involves a large expenditure of effort and causes our whole life to revolve, as it were, around the concern for the flesh.”€

    The formal origin of the traditional distinction between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ means of preserving life can be found in the great commentators of Saint Thomas Aquinas of the XVI Century. The advances of medicine during the Renaissance obliged the moralist of the time to approach the question of the moral limits of preserving health and life. Thus the traditional teaching arose which affirmed the existence of a ‘positive’ moral duty of preserving health and life by way of using medical treatments that offer a reasonable hope for beneficial results (spes salutis) and that does not involve a physical or moral impossibility for the individual (quaedam imposibilitas). Both conditions must be met simultaneously for the means of the preservation of life to be considered ‘ordinary’ and, therefore, morally obligatory. When at least one of these conditions is not fulfilled, the treatment is considered ‘extraordinary’ and its use is morally elective for the individual (relative norm).”

    I scanned through the article on-line and saw that the first several pages of discussion still left us in the 14th century, so I stopped reading, but had to include the quote below because I love the drama of the expressions:

    Among the expressions that the moralists of the tradition utilized to designate the causes of the moral impossibility stand out:

    “Ultimate effort” (sumus labor) and “extremely difficult means” (media nimia dura); “Certain torment” (quidam cruciatus);”enormous pain” (ingens dolor); “extraordinary cost” (sumptus extraordinarius); “valuable means” (media pretiosa);”exquisite means” (media exquisita); “severe horror” (vehemens horror)

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