The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States

The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States

The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States

The Modern Art of Dying: A History of Euthanasia in the United States


How we die reveals much about how we live. In this provocative book, Shai Lavi traces the history of euthanasia in the United States to show how changing attitudes toward death reflect new and troubling ways of experiencing pain, hope, and freedom.

Lavi begins with the historical meaning of euthanasia as signifying an "easeful death." Over time, he shows, the term came to mean a death blessed by the grace of God, and later, medical hastening of death. Lavi illustrates these changes with compelling accounts of changes at the deathbed. He takes us from early nineteenth-century deathbeds governed by religion through the medicalization of death with the physician presiding over the deathbed, to the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

Unlike previous books, which have focused on law and technique as explanations for the rise of euthanasia, this book asks why law and technique have come to play such a central role in the way we die. What is at stake in the modern way of dying is not human progress, but rather a fundamental change in the way we experience life in the face of death, Lavi argues. In attempting to gain control over death, he maintains, we may unintentionally have ceded control to policy makers and bio-scientific enterprises.


The year was 1818, and the Howe family had just moved to Brandon, Vermont, when the young mother fell ill. Hannah was thirty years old and suffered from consumption. Lying on her sickbed, and knowing her days were numbered, she turned to her husband with a weighty question: “Do you doubt of my being prepared to die?” The question of how to die well occupied Hannah's thoughts long before she fell ill. Imagining her deathbed, she had often wished that “she might die shouting, and have an easy passage over the Jordan of death.”

As her day of departure approached, she continued to grow weaker in body and could not converse much. But when she heard talk of the happy death of a certain person she smilingly began waving her hand. Her husband then asked if she felt as though she could shout. “Yes,” said she, and still waving her hand, she cried “Glory! Glory! Glory!”

The final day came. Through the course of the day, she appeared as usual and her mind was clear and serene. She was surrounded by friends and supported by her husband who documented her last hour. “I took her by the hand and asked her if her confidence held out? If Jesus was precious? And if she had a prospect of heaven? She pressed my hand, and said, 'yes,' and fell asleep in the arms of Jesus without a struggle or a groan.”

Early nineteenth-century Americans named this triumphant passage to death “euthanasia.” For them, the word signified a pious death blessed by the grace of God.

At a young age, Dr. Arthur E. Hertzler's daughter came down with a terminal illness, most likely typhoid fever. “In the saddest hour of my life, at the deathbed of my daughter,” the nineteenth-century physician recalled, “on one side was the magnificent and always faithful Carrie the nurse, on the other side the incomparable Dr. Dampbell, calmly applying measures of resuscitation which he and I knew were utterly futile.”

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