“The Loved One” Revisited: On Dying Comfortably in California

Some seventy years ago, in a cemetery in Los Angeles, Waugh had it right: “Once you start changing the names, there is no reason to stop.”

“Once you start changing a name, you see, there’s no reason to stop. One always finds one that sounds better.” — Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One, 1948.

“No longer should terminally ill individuals in California be forced to suffer needlessly in their final days when a more compassionate option is available.” — State Senator Bill Morning, CNN, September 12, 2015.

Oh, Evelyn Waugh, where are you when we need you? After you saw into our future upon viewing our cemetery burial rites in The Loved One, you would have a field day with the “assisted suicides” which our legislature has now bequeathed to us in the holy name of “compassion”—the one word that covers a multitude of sins. However, cremation has probably obviated much need of any cosmetologists to spiffy up the corpses of our voluntarily dead at our present “Whispering Glades” (Forrest Lawn) funeral homes. We have found ways in California, with the help of Planned Parenthood, to use—for a small profit—the parts of aborted human fetuses. If winter comes, can spring be long to follow?

Twenty-one years ago, Oregon passed its “Death with Dignity Act”, the first “right-to-die” legislation. This process is often called “assisted suicide”. I had always thought “suicide”, by definition, was a private enterprise. But thanks to our courts and our philosophers, we are adept at changing the names of things, in ways that hide the reality of things. The classic medical oath used to say: “Do no harm.” If I “assist” someone in a murder, I become a murderer myself. If I “assist” someone to kill himself, I now become a “humanitarian”. “Once you start changing a name….”

As a kind of sick joke, I used to tell my Jesuit friends that, if they suddenly received an assignment to a designated house in Oregon, with the one-way air ticket, they should have no doubt about any further future assignment. But now, California’s legislature, along with those of Wyoming, Vermont, and Washington, has followed the Oregon example, which was itself reflective of life-terminal activities in the Netherlands,

It seems but a question of time before this issue gets to the Supreme Court. Some Christian pharmacist will refuse to deliver the lethal drugs for an “assisted” suicide. He will be convicted of denying a civil “right” to kill oneself. His conscience will have nothing to do with it, nor will his reason.

I have every confidence that Justice Kennedy or one of his companions will find the “right to die” tucked away in the Constitution, just as they found there that “marriage” included those who could not beget even if they tried. It is, we will learn in marvelous legalese, implicit in the “right” to “life”. The Founders just forgot to put it in. The distinction between life and death, after all, is slight. “Once you start changing a name….”

The bill at this writing has not yet been signed by Gov. Jerry Brown One might hope that he will not sign it, but will instead rise to the occasion and follow the recent common sense of the British Parliament to turn down such legislation. They seem to understand in Britain that the “right” to die is but the preliminary (as the Lord of the World already told us) to the “duty” to die. I would estimate that the time line between the two, between a “right” to die and a “duty” to die, to be around a decade, perhaps sooner.

If a human life as such does not mean anything much unless it is “healthy” and not “deformed” or “sickly” or “ancient” or, in the case of babies, not wanted, then there is no earthly reason, on economic grounds alone—the elderly are expensive—not to hasten the process. As for those who think they are going to heaven or hell, let them go and get it over with sooner than later. They have, as it were, the “right” to choose.

So there we have it. Another legislature is more than ready to assist us in killing ourselves. This is what “compassion” now means in our culture (see my essay, “On Compassion”). The one who “assists” at our suicide is a modern “humanitarian”, not a violator of the Oath of Hippocrates.

Let there be only among us the healthy and the perky of our kind, not the halt and the blind, the sick and the dying. Nietzsche was perhaps right: taking care of the sick and the dying was probably a sign of weakness. So the Brave New World is now before us here in El Dorado, all gussied up in a language of compassion that we can all understand.

Some seventy years ago, in a cemetery in Los Angeles, Waugh had it right: “Once you start changing the names, there is no reason to stop.”

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).