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Dying With Dignity, Departing Without Memorial
A meditation on classical and modern views of death
The classical man's worst fear was inglorious death; the modern man's worst fear is just death.
– Nassim Taleb
In ancient times, how one died determined how well one lived. The good life required a good death.
When Croesus asked Solon, “Have you ever known a happier man than me?” Solon replied by naming three dead nobodies. Croesus was shocked. He was a wealthy and powerful king. Surely that’s sufficient for the top 3? It wasn't, at least for the Athenian poet and statesman. Happy people live full lives, die well, and receive honorable burials. Croesus had yet to die and he was unaware that his wealth and power were about to vanish.
Do we think dying well is a part of living well? To some extent. Euthanasia bills, like Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying, force conversations about the end-of-life. Though the modern West can hardly say that the idea of a good death is as central as it was for the ancients, we’re arguably moving in a classical direction. The argument that one should be able to “die with dignity” suggests that a good life must end well.
Though our liberty to die well may be expanding, the chance of a meaningful memorial is vanishing. That renders our existence less socially significant. The classical view that it matters how we enter the grave and how we’re treated once we’re laid to rest is the correct one.
Imagine the value of one’s life could be compressed into a simple graph. If you’re a utilitarian, that’s easy (at least in theory). Utilitarians maximize the good. Classically, utilitarians are hedonists and understand the good to be happiness.
When the value of a life is a function of how much happiness it includes, the value of a life can be graphed like this:
This graph compresses the rollercoaster of life. It gives it a sense of direction.
If you’re not a utilitarian, the exercise is more difficult. Nonetheless, even if welfare is the result of a complex function or can’t be mathematically modeled, we have the sense that some parts of our lives are better than others. When we combine our evaluations of the parts of life into a story, a direction emerges. Our life can improve over time (or the opposite).
Consider these two graphs:
Even if these have the same amount of happiness in total, they are not the same. Most prefer the second story. This shows, to the extent that it can be shown, that there’s value in the story of a life. We prefer a comeback to a disgraceful fall from glory. A life’s significance depends on more than the value of its parts.
After Solon left, Croesus’s kingdom was annihilated by Cyrus the Great. So much for Croesus’s “happiness”. As Cyrus’s men put Croesus to death he yells “Oh Solon!” Dying well matters because it is a part of the narrative structure of one’s life. Terrible endings ruin books, movies, and lives. Excellent endings may redeem them.
There were two kinds of paradigmatic good endings for the classical man. The first is to die serving their city. This is the fate of the Solon’s happiest of men, Tellus:
When the Athenians had a war against their neighbors in Eleusis, coming to the rescue and making a rout of the enemy he died most beautifully, and the Athenians had buried him publicly right where he fell and honored him greatly.
– Herodotus, Histories
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. What joy, to die for one’s country.
The other good death was the autonomously chosen one. Deciding to go could be an honorable thing. The Roman philosopher, Seneca wrote:
It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.
It is better to die than live in dishonor, pointless suffering, or vice. In the same letter, Seneca ends:
Reason, too, advises us to die, if we may, according to our taste; if this cannot be, she advises us to die according to our ability, and to seize upon whatever means shall offer itself for doing violence to ourselves.
These were the ideal forms of death so we shouldn’t overestimate their dominance in the ancient world. Roman emperors did not commit suicide unless they were essentially forced to.
Nonetheless, the idea of a good death was central. It provided a target that many ancients aimed for, even if they fell short of it. They understood that it was good to die for a cause, especially for one’s city or country. If no such cause was available, it would be better to die by one’s own hand than leave death to fortune, which could prolong life for no reason and result in a disgraceful death.
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The Freedom to Die Well
To die for one’s country is no longer as honorable as it once was, at least in most circles. Wilfred Owen calls Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori “the old lie” in his striking poem. Whether or not it is a lie, honorably dying for one’s homeland is not usually a viable option.
Nonetheless, in the second kind of good death, suicide, the modern and classical view of death is converging.
Several countries support active euthanasia. Such policies offer “death with dignity.” Instead of choosing the story where one death is left to fortune in an unaesthetic hospital, one may compose an end of one’s choosing. Legally sanctioning some forms of suicide allows people to die in a more classical fashion.
The typical arguments against such policies are explicitly Christian or borrowed from Christian inheritance. But ancient Romans and Greeks would not see anything wrong with allowing people to poison themselves. Famously, the sage Socrates chose death by hemlock over exile.
The acceptance of active euthanasia brings the modern view of death closer to the classical one. The reason is simple: both worlds recognize that a good death is crucial for a good life.
However, there is a central difference between passing away today and then. Dying today is a bureaucratic business. Not so, in ancient Greece and Rome. Does this refute the suggestion that the modern and ancient views of the end of life are coming together?
Let’s press the point. Doctors tried to stop the most exemplary suicides of the Romans. Cato the Younger killed himself despite his medics’ attempts at dissuasion. Similarly, Socrates chose hemlock over his friends' suggestion that he flee Athens. Dishonorable suicides, like the emperor Nero’s, explicitly involve the idea that the person to die lacks the courage to do it on their own. Involving the medical establishment is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good suicide. Why involve it by way of legal sanction at all?
In Words to the Wise, The psychiatrist Thomas Szasz puts the argument forcefully:
I support the right to suicide but not the right to physician-assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide gives a right to physicians that belongs to patients; it fosters medical-statist tutelage, not self-determination and self-responsibility.
To be explicit, for Szasz, physician-assisted suicide is not a good death because it shuffles responsibility away from the individual and to the state.
People will go to great lengths to seek medical aid in dying. Several traveled hundreds of miles to see Dr. Kevorkian – a doctor who illegally offered euthanasia services in the 90s. Why?
[Kvorkian’s] clients traveled, sometimes thousands of miles, to secure his services. If they could do that, they could have killed themselves by other means, for example by architect-assisted suicide, a.k.a. as jumping off a tall building.
What we seek is recognition, in addition to more aesthetic methods of death. This is what Dr. Kvorkian offered. He met the need for an aesthetically satisfying death and social approval.
Suicide outside of the medical context does not usually possess either of these factors. This is likely a good thing. The typical suicide is a tragic mistake.
These points suggest a response to Szasz’s autonomy argument. Medically sanctioned suicide provides the possibility of social validation. At its best, it is communal. At its worst, and this is a serious risk, it is bureaucratic and isolating. Perhaps one can draw analogies to marriage or birth. Such events require social and legal recognition. This is true of the classical and modern world.
So, I insist that the acceptance of active euthanasia renders the modern world more classical. However, our loss of an earthly afterlife and neglect of burial does not.
The Earthly Afterlife
Solon’s happiest men would not have been so if they had not received worthy burials.
Solon first named Tellus, a man honored in life and death. Next came Cleobis and Biton, two individuals tied in second place for the happiest of men. Herodotus writes that after driving their mother to a Delphic religious festival:
The youths then lay down in the temple and went to sleep and never rose again; death held them there. The Argives made and dedicated at Delphi statues of them as being the best of men.
For Solon and most ancients, the story of our life extends beyond our organism’s lifespan. One can call this time many things: a period of mourning, a time of memorial, or an earthly afterlife. The chosen term is immaterial, what’s important is understanding that a good burial, lasting legacy, and sense of memorial mattered.
Ideally, the classical person would prefer a life with a good existence and excellent burial to a “better life” and a “worse earthly afterlife.” Consider these representations of different lives:
The pink gradient is the earthly afterlife – appropriately colored I hope. I claim that, ideally, the view that takes the quality of an afterlife seriously would prefer the first life to the following one, even though the “living” part includes more happiness:
Euripides’ Hecuba is a play of the dead. Their demands for recognition, sacrifice, and revenge animate the plot.
The first conflict concerns the desires of a dead man – Achilles. After death, his ghost sought ritual sacrifice. In an attempt to justify sacrificing the daughter of the queen of Troy, Polyxena, Odysseus says:
Tell me, what conduct could be worse than to give your friend a lifetime of honor and respect but neglect him when he dies?
It’s an incredible statement. Today, philosophers debate whether the wishes of the dead matter at all, let alone whether they could justify the sacrifice.
Later in the play, Polyxena dies with grace. She is promised an excellent funeral. The villain’s children are not. There’s justice in that. Such stories portray at least how the idealized ancients wished to die and be treated in death.
I think it’s fair to say that the wishes of the dead are not as important, at least in the modern West.
More striking evidence for this claim was revealed during the pandemic. During covid, people could not attend funerals. I know someone whose mother became exceptionally sick (not from Covid). She attempted to visit but was repeatedly turned away at the Canadian border. Her mother died. She tried to visit again, only to be turned away, again. There are other stories like this.
The Italian philosopher Agamben asked:
How could we have accepted, in the name of a risk that we couldn’t even quantify, not only that the people who are dear to us, and human beings more generally, should have to die alone but also — and this is something that had never happened before in all of history from Antigone to today — that their corpses should be burned without a funeral?
In Antigone, of course, Antigone dies to bury her brother, Polynices. In myth, life is worth risking for the dead. Consider King Priam, endangering himself in the Iliad for the sake of burying his son, Hector.
This is not to say that people should trespass into foreign lands to bury their relatives – that’s an absurd request. Unlike King Priam, they would not meet a persuadable Achilles, but an unfeeling bureaucratic behemoth. There’s a real tragedy in that fact.
It’s been written that to philosophize is to learn how to die. I propose that for many of us, that means dying well and being laid to rest with dignity.
The meaning of our life depends, to some extent, on whether there are people after us. In his book Death and the Afterlife, the philosopher Scheffler argued that our sense of meaning and purpose is deeply tied to our confidence that life will continue after we are gone. The significance of projects like raising a family, contributing to culture, pursuing knowledge, conserving art, and improving the polis all depend on humanity continuing. Why raise a family if the world will end tomorrow? Why conserve, transmit, or improve if everything will be annihilated in one year?
One way to interpret his view is that meaning is completely contingent on future generations. If there are no descendants, then our lives are meaningless. This interpretation is too strong. A weaker, more plausible interpretation, is that the significance of our lives is impacted by our descendants. A life at the end of time, with no descendants, would have an entirely different meaning than one where life went on. Our lives are significant now. The most meaningful lives, however, extend beyond the grave and impact future generations. Raising a family matters more when your descendants enjoy lives of their own.
What this means, if it is true, is that we shape the meaning of our ancestors’ lives.
This is not news to traditional cultures. Yet, for those who forsake funerals for speculative benefits for the living, it may be. It is in memorials that we consecrate fallen friends' or relatives' stories. When we forget such acts or devalue them, we may reduce the social meaning of their lives. Of course, there is significant cultural variation when it comes to realizing a funeral. A public display is not always necessary. But, in the words of Odysseus, we should not neglect a friend in death. They make demands of us still.