Jack Kevorian’s Spiritual Legacy:
A Painful Tattoo, Bones in the Pocket & the Mystery of Death
Jack Kevorkian finally knows the answer to his life’s biggest question: “I’ve been fascinated by death because I wondered what the unknown was that’s facing me,” Kevorkian testified in a 1994 hearing. “Also, I’m a medical doctor, death is a part of my profession, and we don’t know anything about it. … If you know what death is, you know what life is.”
Unfortunately, none of us who so closely covered his long career in assisted suicide—eventually claiming well over 100 deaths—can interview Jack now.
But, one thing is clear. Attempts to paint the Kevorkian story as a contest between an angry skeptic and his religious enemies are way off the mark. As a journalist who reported on spiritual responses to Kevorkian over many years, I was responsible for recording many of those religious blasts in the public square. Over the years, the loudest religious response was voiced—and was well financed—by Detroit’s Catholic Cardinal Adam Maida, who eventually retired in 2009. In the 1990s, Maida organized a statewide campaign in Michigan and an entire interfaith coalition of religious leaders to condemn Kevorkian and assisted suicide. For his part, Kevorkian usually responded to religious leaders with acid-tipped barbs.
In one news report about Maida’s decision to fund a multi-media campaign against Kevorkian, I quoted Maida as saying that assisted suicide was a slippery slope toward euthanasia and abusive engineering of human life. “We could have people making decisions for us about who can come into life and how we go out of it,” Maida said in our interview.
When I asked Kevorkian about this, he snapped back: “Maida is about as relevant to this issue as he is to a heart operation.”
Maida responded that Kevorkian was wrong. This question is part of a global concern for defending the sanctity of human rights against powerful forces that the 20th Century proved were fully capable of large-scale human-rights abuses. “This is rooted in our understanding of who we are as human beings,” Maida told me. “In abortion and in assisted suicide, we’ve got basic human rights we’re trying to address.”
But that’s not the only spiritual frame through which the Kevorkian debate was viewed by American families. To this day, millions of men and women simply have no idea where to turn for spiritual advice on difficult end-of-life decisions. As a careful observer of religious media, I can tell you: Even as Americans collectively age and face these decisions in growing numbers—there’s a yawning lack of responsible religious counseling on these issues affecting millions.
Kevorkian and the Woman Who Carried Bones in Her Pocket
What haunts me in remembering Kevorkian are the men and women I met who, like Kevorkian, were honest about the mystery of the Big Unknown—who desperately and sometimes poignantly searched for spiritual as well as physical answers.
Let’s be honest: For all his bluster, Kevorkian cared little about the spiritual side of life. When he talked about such matters, he was blunt as a sledgehammer and often went out of his way to offend traditionally religious people.
I was part of the Detroit Free Press’ long-term investigative team that studied scores of cases in which Kevorkian helped people kill themselves. Our team discovered that a shocking portion of the people Kevorkian helped to kill were, in fact, not terminally ill. They might have had years of life left, despite their conditions. And, in some extreme cases, our team found, people were so terrified and depressed about their possible medical conditions that they ended their lives—only to have an autopsy prove that they weren’t physically ill at all! Despite his claims of elaborate ethical codes, Kevorkian managed death like an assembly-line foreman—often paying little attention to people’s physical and mental conditions and sometimes leaving their remains in ghastly settings.
That’s what led so many of the surviving families, who returned home after Kevorkian suicides, to invent their own spiritual responses. That’s what led to the woman with the painful tattoo—and the woman who carried bones in her pocket.
If you care to research Kevorkian’s career, you’ll find the full names of these unfortunate people, but in this story I’ll use only first names.
In 1996, Rebecca was a California woman who killed herself with Kevorkian’s help because she believed that “excruciating” multiple sclerosis already had destroyed her quality of life. However, her autopsy later showed that, while she may have been psychologically disturbed, she was “robust,” “fairly healthy” and had no signs of MS.
Through this traumatic process, Rebecca’s daughter Christy—who had assisted her Mom in reaching Jack—suffered an agonizing spiritual struggle before settling upon her own private memorial to her mother.
Way back in the good years with her mother, Rebecca and Christy had enjoyed the ocean. So, Christy decided to have a huge tattoo of the ocean floor permanently etched into her back. “There’s a starfish and a sand dollar and there’s a big seahorse with bubbles coming out of its mouth. It’s really colorful and shows everything my mom would love,” Christy told me.
Part of establishing this memorial in skin were the hours Christy forced herself to lay still as tiny needles pressed the dyes into her skin. The pain became a penitential rite. In fact, she couldn’t complete it as soon as she had hoped, Christy told me—the pain was too intense. Eventually, Christy planned to keep returning to the artist until the ocean scene was finished with the words, “In Loving Memory: Rebecca.”
What else could Christy have done at that point? We all may have responses to her dilemma. We may scoff at anyone naïve enough to deal with the infamous “Dr. Death.” But Rebecca and Christy were women many of us might have befriended—real, loving, intelligent women simply seeking solace.
They were women like—well, like the woman with bones in her pocket. Carol is her name, the devoted mother of an ALS-suffering son who couldn’t bear to see him go through the final phases of the debilitating disorder. Her son was only 27, bedridden, unable to speak clearly or to use his fingers by the time she helped him end his life with Kevorkian’s aid. At that point, she and her son were desperate. On his own, the son had made three unsuccessful attempts at ending his life.
And yet, Carol told me, they weren’t aware of any supportive spiritual community to help them through this crisis. Many of the families who visited Kevorkian described this painful void. Suddenly, professionals were telling them that the end of life was largely a matter of managing financial crises and organizing medical services. One surviving family told me about the unbearable rudeness of technicians who came to pick up their just-deceased mother’s hospital bed. In contrast to this uncaring vacuum, even the brusque Kevorkian could seem like a savior.
Of course, Kevorkian dispensed just death—and left the surviving families in a flash. There was no ongoing care. Despite that lack of personal care, Carol remained a Kevorkian advocate after her son’s death. She told me that it was simply left to her—alone—to establish her own mourning rituals. “I just can’t get over it,” she said.
On the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Carol’s son, several relatives did decide to carry out his wishes by sprinkling his ashes from a mountaintop. But Carol was not ready to give up all of the ashes and, instead, took a small spoon and measured out 23 scoops of the ashes for the mountaintop rite.
Why 23? “Because (he) was No. 23 in Dr. Kevorkian’s series,” Carol explained.
As she examined the ashes, she discovered small bone fragments, some of them white and some of them charred black. “Now, I carry around two bone chips with me, one black and one white,” she said. “I just keep them in my pocket. This way, any time I put my hand in my pocket, there’s my son. It’s pathetic, but when it’s your son, you just don’t get over it.”
Carol was right. We don’t get over death easily—and certainly not such a traumatic death. For all of our global spiritual awareness, our collective richness of religious wisdom and our millennia-long experience with ritual and reassurance—there’s precious little being offered to such needy families today.
If you’re reading this today—and you’re involved in thoughtful ministries to aid families—then email us at [email protected] and tell us about what you’re doing and what you think about all of this. Certainly there are growing numbers of hospice programs, thousands of clergy and chaplains who do a solid job with end-of-life rituals—and many professionals researching these issues.
But as Jack Kevorkian finally gets the answer to his life’s biggest question today—June 3, 2011—perhaps it’s a moment when all of us can resolve to help our friends, our neighbors and our own families find out more about what unfolds as our lives near their conclusions.
Let’s work on it now, shall we? That is, while we’re still here to talk about it in a helpful way. We certainly can’t ask Jack what he found on the other side.
Care to read more about Kevorkian’s legacy?
You can still order a copy of The Suicide Machine by the Detroit Free Press Staff via Amazon. I wrote the chapter in that book about the spiritual and psychological legacy of Kevorkian suicides for many families.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.