Death be not proud

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Death be not proud


When the American anti-capitalist Scott Nearing was to turn 100, he chose to end his life by fasting. With his wife Helen at his side, he faced his own mortality with peace on August 24, 1983.

That sounds like a choice of death that only a sage or monk could imagine and achieve. But unlikely deaths happen more often in this world than one might think. The death of one of my colleague’s mother-in-law was one of them.

The in-laws were devoted to each other. The father-in-law passed away in September 2005 from cancer. The following year, the mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. She was admitted to a hospital but, after only a day, she demanded to be taken home. She told her children that she didn’t want to be a burden to them and that she intended to die on the anniversary of her husband’s death.

The seven children weren’t of a mind to accept such a decision, but after many painful talks, they did. The mother didn’t take food. She only drank water to wash down painkillers.

She summoned her children and their spouses to her and distributed her lifetime collection of paintings and calligraphy works. She was in a coma for a week before finally passing away a day before the first anniversary of her husband’s death. Out of respect, surviving family members mark one annual memorial service jointly for both parents.

Some celebrate their own deaths with classy humor, in advance of course. George Bernard Shaw wrote his own epitaph: “I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen.” The British daily newspaper the Times wrote that Shaw’s funeral procession was followed by goats, cows and sheep, celebrating the legacy of writer, who was an early vegetarian.

The JoongAng Ilbo recently reported the story of American writer Jane Lotter, who wrote her own obituary for the Seattle Times last month. It began, “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary.”

The author didn’t forget to slip in a joke, “I would demonstrate my keen sense of humor by telling a few jokes here, but the Times charges for these listings by the column inch and we must move on.”

The 61-year-old columnist made readers cry and laugh as she confessed, “I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back.”

Composed acceptance of death and classy humor go well together. Death is a part of life.

It may not be easy for the average person to imitate such a dignified attitude in the face of death, but it’s encouraging to know there are courageous people amongst us.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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