[Viewpoint]Death with dignity

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[Viewpoint]Death with dignity

A hilarious article was published in the newspaper last weekend. The article said Bloomberg News, a U.S. economic news wire service, mistakenly sent out the obituary of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The obituary, published at 4:27 p.m. on Aug. 29, 2008, described Jobs as one “who helped make personal computers as easy to use as telephones, changed the way animated films are made, persuaded consumers to tune into digital music and refashioned the mobile phone.”

The obituary even included very personal information. It said Jobs, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, had “kept his cancer a secret for nine months as he sought alternatives to surgery.”

An inaccurate report is something that all journalists want to avoid, but lack of attention, lack of reporting and too much competition often lead to mistakes in Korea and around the world. In 2003, a fake CNN Web site ran an article about the murder of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, and Korean broadcasters such as MBC, SBS and YTN aired the news based on that information, suffering major embarrassment.

The worst possible nightmare in the news industry is airing an obituary of a person who is alive and well.

And yet, all human beings die, and media companies have no choice but to prepare for the deaths of celebrities. The culture departments of newspapers probably have obituaries for the nation’s celebrities half-ready and use them when the death actually comes. In any news departments, several ready-to-run obituaries are probably stocked in files.

The deaths of the celebrated writers Pi Chon-duk in May last year, Park Kyung-ree in May of this year and Lee Chung-joon in July of this year are probably such cases.

After realizing its mistake, Bloomberg retracted the entire report, but it had already spread through the Internet. Because of the mistake that took pace across the Pacific Ocean, I suddenly posed a question that I wouldn’t normally ask myself. “If I was the person featured in the obituary, what would it be about?”

An obituary is not necessarily for someone “who helped make personal computers as easy to use as telephones” and “persuaded consumers to tune into digital music.”

And, who cares if the obituary does not run in the media?

All deaths are noble, and it is fair that everyone dies just once and that the obituary will be published for only that time.

Working as a journalist for more than 20 years, I have written quite a few obituaries, but I have never thought about my death or my obituary. Perhaps the best time to write your own obituary or will is when it feels like it is too early.

In his book, “Write for Life,” Sheppard Kominars urged readers to write their wills in advance. The author wrote that people tend to not accept their own ultimate death because they deny the truth. This is the so-called not yet syndrome.

Our lives just pass by the world, and no one has the right to say “not yet” to death. And yet, people, particularly in Korean society, live with the syndrome. They are reluctant to discuss death, and they hate all facilities that remind them of death. The government, the media and the autonomous governments all act this way.

They are well aware of the famous three-part inferences that “All humans are mortal; Socrates is human; therefore Socrates is mortal.” However, they act as if this does not apply to them.

The neighboring country of Japan had serious discussions on the issue of “death with dignity,” and 120,000 Japanese have already obtained cards that guarantee their right to die with dignity.

Japan’s Bar Association has designated April 15 of every year “the Day of Wills” and launched a campaign to help the public write their own wills.

In his book, “Happy Ending: We Have the Right to Die with Dignity,” the writer Choi Cheol-ju pointed out that various children’s books on death are available on bookshelves in the United States.

What is the situation in Korea? Before making a ruling on the first-ever case over death with dignity, the judges conducted a site investigation at Severance Hospital in Sinchon, Seoul, only on Sept. 1.

The doctors’ hands were tied with the threats of assisted murder charges, and efforts to legislate a law governing the right to die with dignity have stalled.

From the public awareness to the legal, medical and educational policies, Korean society lags so far behind in coping with death.

*The writer is the senior culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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