[Viewpoint] The death (and life) debates

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[Viewpoint] The death (and life) debates

Korea faced death several times in the first half of the year. Perhaps never before has death played such a prominent role in the nation’s psyche.

We have been left to reflect upon the case of a woman known to us only as Kim whose life and death became the center of the “death with dignity” issue that has left all of us questioning the best way to handle an event we will all face sooner or later.

The death of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan left many people in this country deeply sad to see a man of such compassion leave us, making us think on how we should live our lives and approach our own ends.

However, two days after the Supreme Court released a ruling to accept a person’s right to die with dignity, former President Roh Moo-hyun took his own life.

Amid the tremendous shock, the debates on death were thrown into chaos.

Some quarters have made an outrageous attempt to turn Roh’s death into a kind of “death with dignity from the political perspective,” while some politicians and religious figures used his death as a tool for political spats.

Religious groups and spiritual communities were also left confused by the death debates.

In a symposium on life and death with dignity at the end of May in Seoul, a nun said: “It is very difficult because of the former president’s suicide. The patients at my hospice center frequently ask whether it would be right to end one’s own life like the former president did if one felt tremendous pain and agony.”

The same worries that tormented the nun could also be seen on the face of a young Buddhist monk in Suncheon, South Jeolla.

After the morning service at a makeshift altar for former President Roh in front of the pavilion for Ksitigarbha, he explained how he responded to such questions.

“Buddha also said it was wrong to end one’s own life. It should not be allowed. But the president has already passed away. I only pray for his soul not to wander but to find its right place in heaven.”

Several followers then asked a barrage of questions, wanting to know what is the ideal way to die. The monk duly answered but when the question of suicide was raised everybody became silent.

The silence of the religious field reveals the spiritual hardships that believers are going through.

I received a newsletter from the Mohyeon Hospice Center in Pocheon, Gyeonggi, which is run by a small group of nuns. The newsletter published a list of 18 people who had died in the past month. They were cancer patients whose disease was in the final stages. There were young and old included on the list. They ended active treatment and only received treatment to control pain and ease symptoms. They voluntarily chose a better way to die.

The families of the patients who died at the center are taken care of by the nuns because the remaining family members are deeply wounded.

The hospices or general hospitals in the United States that I have visited also ran programs to help families of last-phase cancer patients or of those who took their own lives. There is even a national strategy to prevent suicide because it is such a national tragedy.

If the families of the dead do not heal properly, we could face serious social problems. We also need to take good care of the family of former President Roh; the entire society must cooperate to offer better treatment.

Some politicians, religious figures and civic organizations deepen wounds through their own hard-line actions. Their overreactions make Roh’s death even more sorrowful.

A month and a half has passed since the former president ended his life and the unreasonable attempt to make his death a political death with dignity has disappeared, leaving space for others to commemorate his life.

Meanwhile Seoul National University Hospital has released guidelines for death with dignity, and other hospitals are following suit, giving us an opportunity to think about what is an ideal death.

I hope that religious communities give time to mull on death and offer people comfort, proper advice and, of course, support.

*The writer is a columnist.

by Choi Chul-joo
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