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

By Shai J. Lavi | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The Ethics of the Deathbed: Euthanasia
from Art to Technique

THE YEAR was 1818, and the Howe family had just moved to Brandon, Vermont, when the young mother fell ill.1 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.2 “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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