Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Death*

*But were too afraid to ask

by Kailee Stiles


As I write, there is a document saved on my computer, marked “Will.” It isn’t a paper on Shakespeare; it isn’t a list of future goals; it is a will in that terrible sense of a last will and testament. Not a particularly common thing for a 21-year-old to have, but there it is. If I printed it tomorrow and took it to be signed, notarized and witnessed, I would have a legal document allocating my belongings and requesting certain arrangements for my burial. Before publication of this article, there is exactly one person in the world who knows I have written such a thing.     

It’s a funny fact about modern society that this is such an outlandish thing to have done, and that we have become so afraid of talking about death. In the medieval era, dying was simply a part of several physical, ritual and liturgical cycles connected to living. Today, thinking and talking about one’s own death is either a marginalized topic reserved for the children of the elderly or the parents of intensive care patients, or caricatured as an Addams family-like tendency toward gross morbidity. Why do we refuse to approach death until it stands directly in front of us? We’ve recognized it’s healthy to bring sex education further and further into open dialogues. Why should death be any different from un petit morte?

Luckily for Coloradans, this November is as good a time as any to consider the meaning of death. In an ironic twist of fate, the demise of last year’s “Colorado Death with Dignity Act” has spurred a resurgence of the right-to-die movement in the Colorado General Assembly. Instead of fighting to pass a bill in the divided chambers ensuring the right to doctor-assisted suicide, lawmakers are presenting the issue to Colorado citizens as Proposition 106, also known as the “Medical Aid in Dying” initiative or the “End of Life Options Act.”

Proposition 106 is modeled on the now-mythical progressive movement in Oregon, which passed a similar “Death with Dignity Act.” Colorado’s version would have its own specific safeguards intended to prevent abuse of doctor-assisted suicide. Patients must be deemed by two different doctors to be both terminally ill (six months or less to live) and mentally competent to make decisions. Those doctors must also receive one written and two verbal statements from the patient requesting medical aid-in-dying before they prescribe secobarbitol, the drug that the patient will self-administer in order to die. In low doses, secobarbitol is also a sleeping drug, which should adequately imply the kind of death the patient will have.

In another example of the purple haze covering Colorado politics these days, this issue has been passionately debated—even this very magazine has now published two articles on the issue in as many years. According to the Denver Post, Compassion & Choices, a doctor-assisted-death advocacy group based in Colorado, is the primary group heading the charge to pass the proposition, raising $4.8 million dollars for their campaign. Objectors to the referendum have found a voice in the “No Assisted Suicide” campaign, which has received $1.1 million from the Archdiocese of Denver and five-figure donations from the Colorado Springs-based groups Colorado Christian University and Focus on the Family.

Popularized by the documentary “How to Die in Oregon” (2011), it seems that “medical aid in dying” has become only the next task on the twentysomething progressives’ laundry list: Legalize marijuana; increase taxes on the wealthy; stop fracking; right to die. Check, check, check, check. Is opposition to Prop. 106 just one more point on that checklist proving how intensely different Colorado College students are from the Coloradans whose space we inhabit for four years? And yet, we forget: dying is not a task. It is the most personal and most communal act a person can ever experience.

The way we decide to treat our always-pending deaths says a great deal about us as individuals, and the way we choose to treat both the idea of others’ deaths and their physical corpses speaks volumes about who we are and how we wish to be seen and remembered. Death happens to everyone at some point and we strive to find specificity for the deaths of those we know, to separate their passing from the phenomenon of passing in general. Death is a story, just like life. The manner in which we write that story for ourselves and the way we tell others’ stories digs out parts of us we may not have known were there.

Truthfully, accepting mortality leads to a freeing sort of looseness toward the subject in everyday life. In fact, the faculty member at Colorado College I believe to have considered death the most over the years is also the most optimistic and cheerful one I know. Feminist writer Alison Bechdel even contemplates in her graphic tragicomic Fun Home, “it could be argued that death is inherently absurd...one second a person is there, the next they’re not.” There’s no need to rush out and buy yourself a casket or reserve your slot at the cremation facility, but why not consider the sheer ridiculousness of your own demise? Taken abstractly, it’s like an invisibility cloak: there, then gone; there, then gone. Take it from me, it’s a peculiar sort of inside joke, but a joke all the same.

Given what I’m sure are the equally bemused, horrified and smiling reactions of readers to the idea of death as something absurd, we can’t really be surprised that Colorado is having such a crisis when it comes to deciding when and how people can die. There is a constant fear of death in our society, and an unwillingness to even openly state its existence except in euphemisms and hushed tones. That fear is so present we seem to be incapable of finding the absurdity of dying the way Bechdel has. To be clear, it is one thing to be viscerally afraid of dying painfully through the types of diseases Proposition 106 is designed for. But that is different from the way Western culture seems to fear the lack of existence, to fear not being present anymore. That is the fear we so deeply need to address.

Coming to terms with mortality is an intensely difficult process that requires years or decades of psychological probing and emotional maturity. There are no road maps. Even the will I have written is just a single step toward recognizing the eventual end of my own life. However, the sheer act of recognizing of death’s eventual occurrence is a manageable start. I know I sat through my fair share of funerals and cried swimming pools of tears before I really hit on the fact that one day it’ll be me receiving a celebration of life, or funeral, or memorial gun salute. (You never know.) There is absolutely no way for us to really extrapolate both the seriousness and absurdity—the tragicomedy, if you will—of death to a statewide or even nationwide scale without intense division. No two individuals have the same emotional or psychological understanding of death; sometimes we can’t even agree with ourselves that the death of loved ones or strangers is just as bizarre as our own death, or vice versa. It’s similarly ludicrous to assume a whole democracy could sit down and find such a consensus.

But here we are, confronted with this singular moment of meta-decision: voters are deciding what patients and doctors are allowed to decide for end-of-life care. It isn’t difficult to comprehend what proponents and opponents believe the success of this referendum will mean for Colorado. “Yes” campaigners argue that no one should be forced to suffer either a slow decline from a potentially painful terminal illness, or have to resort to covert methods of suicide that often fail in order to avoid that suffering. Moreover, they add that the logic of the right to healthcare inherently leads us to the right to purposeful, peaceful death. “No” activists are equally convinced that allowing doctors to prescribe these medications refutes God, puts doctors in the position of espousing personal ethics in the hospital, takes advantage of terminal illness depression and gives insurers a way out of paying for expensive medical treatments because dying is cheaper. Neither side is wrong.

This is not an endorsement editorial. I have no desire to be the Cipher’s voice entering into the ideological fray of “the right to die.” Instead, I want only to convince you that the moment we have now, this moment to consider Death and deaths on a scale writ large, is actually a beautiful one. Regardless of ideology, regardless of what you think about estate tax and suicide and ethics and personal liberty, this is our Socratic apologia, where we each can look in the mirror and begin to tell our stories to ourselves, if to no one else quite yet. Colorado voter or not, it is a gift to be given this philosophic, democratic crossroads. I urge you to consider it carefully. And then I urge you to giggle, if only once.