Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Long Thanatopsis

In 30 years, the assisted suicides of people won’t be met by the furor that followed the death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who ended her own life with a fatal dose of barbiturates on Nov. 1.

In 30 years, the media won’t bother with stories like Gillian Bennett, an 85-year-old Canadian woman who took her own life in August using alcohol and barbiturates because she had decided not to live any longer with dementia. Upon her death, a website,, went live with an essay justifying her choice and arguing for assisted suicide. In 30 years, an explanatory website will be as unnecessary as a newspaper story, because this form of dying will be just another one of the ways that we die.

This shift will be part of the lasting legacy of the 76 million baby boomers who make up about 25 percent of the American population and who will be aging and dying in the next 20 years. A century from now, the historians of the future will not credit them as much for their boisterous 1960s counterculture as for the gray twinkle and fade in the early 21st century that forever altered the way America dies.

For a middle-aged Gen X-er like me to play in the thanatopsis sandbox like this is bittersweet. (“Thanatopsis” is a meditation on death, from William Cullen Bryant’s 1817 poem.) Of course, it’s untoward to point to anyone’s death, no matter how inescapable it is. The main source of the bitterness, though, is acknowledging that the cultural hegemony of the baby boomers will always overshadow me. Better than I know the contours of my historical experience, I know theirs: born into postwar prosperity, the hedonism and idealism, its psychological aftermath, and the nostalgias (The Big Chill, A Prairie Home Companion). I envied their generational mindset, the self-identity of a group that was formed in the same historical crucible, so as a senior in college in 1989, I pitched an article on “my generation” to a national magazine. Very kindly but firmly the editor, a baby boomer, refused it on the grounds that generational forms of thinking were now outrĂ©, even as he admitted getting his start in journalism by publishing a “my generation” piece in 1974. This epitomizes to me how sorry a creature the Gen X-er could be: weaned on someone else’s cultural themes, always too late to the party. (Fortunately Richard Linklater and Douglas Coupland were more persistent than I was.)

All this is blunted by knowing that when (and, let’s be honest, if) I become an elderly Gen X-er, many of the sharp edges of old age will have been blasted smooth by the massive demographic cohort that has preceded me. That’s the sweet part of the bittersweetness.

It’s impossible for me to predict everything that will occur, but it seems clear that every kitchen gadget will be available in ergonomic designs for weaker, arthritic hands. Every building will have been fitted with hearing loops in each room, so my hearing aids will work better. The bathrooms will all be ADA-compliant, fitted with wide doors and handles, and all street crossings will have curb cuts. No homes, offices, or shops will have raised thresholds at doorways, so my robot health aides will able to glide over them, along with my solar-powered wheelchair. If I can afford it, my transitional housing will be designed to maximize my psychological and emotional wellbeing. The clinics, rehab centers, hospitals, and nursing homes will seem like brisk hotels, perhaps even like resorts, not like institutions. Safe, effective, and cheap therapies and drugs to improve the workings of my brain and body will be easily accessible and widely accepted. We will be able to take, and perhaps self-administer, human growth hormone. Medical marijuana will be federally recognized.

By then, the good death will be just another lifestyle choice. Philosophers of inequality will argue that dying well should not be enjoyed only by the upper income tiers, and the policy question of the day will be whether or not dying well is a public good. Should prisoners receive funding from the state in order to pursue dying with dignity? Will people living in homeless shelters be able to receive the psychiatric clearance that’s needed for state-sanctioned death? State laws about burials and funerals will also change, such as the requirement (in some states) that only licensed, registered funeral directors may make arrangements and preparations for burial or cremation; embalming bodies will become increasingly rare, and funerary practices with low environmental impact, such as “green cremation,” will be niche at first, even luxury, then will become more widely available. Already there are do-it-yourself funerary books, magazines, and night courses. Soon there will be coffee shop meet-ups and death parties. (Things are moving so fast that I discover this already exists, too.)

by Michael Erard, TMN | Read more:
Image: Colin Chillag, Grandma-Grandpa, 2012