[Outlook]Fighting for dignity in life and death
Our custom of burying coffins in the ground in traditional funerals was once such a serious problem that some even called for the president to make it a priority concern.
But recently cremation has become the norm, largely thanks to former SK Group Chairman Chey Jong-hyon, who died suddenly in 1998.
Chairman Chey founded and developed a global company and manufactured food products for the people, a major contribution to Korean society.
He also changed our funeral culture from burial to cremation, which is definitely another important achievement.
He left a will in which he asked to be cremated. He refused to rest in a luxurious graveyard.
Chey’s cremation sent ripples throughout Korea and reduced the reluctance to opt for cremation; it was a landmark in our funeral culture.
Thus a great and respected social figure can challenge his people even in the last moments of his life.
While an average citizen’s death is remembered only by his or her family and friends, a great person’s death can affect the whole country, especially if it shocks us into addressing one of our problems.
When the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan was hospitalized for the last time in September last year, he reportedly asked his physician, Dr. Chung In-sik, not to take any measures to prolong his life unnecessarily and not to use a respirator to keep him alive artificially.
The cardinal gave clear directions on how he wanted his life to end.
Chung heard the cardinal’s words alone, and later the doctor confirmed the cardinal’s wishes with others, including his heart specialist Dr. Kim Yeong-kyun, surgeon Dr. Lee Myeong-deok and a nun, Sister Hong Hyeon-ja.
The physician in charge asked a priest who served as the cardinal’s assistant to write an official document saying that the cardinal did not want a respirator to be used in his treatment.
That request was not fulfilled. However, the cardinal’s wish was communicated to Cardinal Nicolas Cheong Jin-suk, who serves as the archbishop of Seoul.
After hearing it, Cardinal Cheong guaranteed that Cardinal Kim’s wish would be fulfilled, playing his role as representative and rendering unnecessary the process of writing an official document.
Cardinal Kim’s life and the way he wished to accept its end were respected.
The expression of his wishes was transparent while his privacy was protected until after he passed away. His doctors, the cardinal and the Church cooperated to make his final request come true.
Cardinal Kim made a reasoned decision that he would not prolong his life with artificial measures, relying on a respirator.
The Church fulfilled his wish.
We can understand that Cardinal Kim, even in the last phase of his life, wanted to affirm the wisdom of these new values on how to deal with death, with which many people agree.
When he was alive, the cardinal thought everyone should live a life of dignity and humility, and he respected all peoples.
Cardinal Kim was the first Korean cardinal and an influential figure in international society who helped make decisions at the Vatican.
He also fought for Korea’s democratization movement.
And just as he contributed to Korea’s democratization, he will make an impact not only here but also throughout the world by drawing attention to an important social value - the right to make one’s own decisions regarding one’s final stage of life.
We must let the world know about how the cardinal died and how his doctors handled his case, and make it customary in society.
If a bill guaranteeing a person’s right to die with dignity is passed here, Korea can then submit a resolution to the World Health Organization and become a leading country in the international public health system.
Cardinal Kim constantly prayed for our society and was an example of a life lived for love for others.
He also left a message to distinguished members of our society.
He showed them that if they believe in a great cause or principle they should not be satisfied with the accomplishments that they have made so far, but even in their last moments on earth they should try to change the world for the better.
The writer is a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of Public Health. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Sohn Myung-sei