It was around the time of the Civil War that people began to sentimentalize the dead, to imagine them as perfect and alive — an eternally enduring snapshot of themselves, as though death had not changed them at all. So many beloved and beautiful men had died young — so many boyfriends and brothers and fathers and sons — and with dignity, too, for a greater cause. It was impossible to think of them in their final, gruesome, agonizing moments or to feel consoled by the Christianity that the Puritans insisted on, that life was suffering, toil, and hardship, mediated, if one were fortunate enough, by a remote and abstract afterlife of residence. One of the best-selling books of the 19th century, surpassed only by the Bible and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was The Gates Ajar, a novel that refuted that old Puritan ideal. A young woman named Mary, grieving over the death of her brother Roy in the war, is visited by an aunt who teaches her that Roy exists still, somewhere nearby, and that when she ascends to heaven she will see “the sparkle in his eye and listen to his laughing voice.” A nation found comfort in the idea that a young man who died too soon might be whisked from one perfect state to another, with no excruciating passage in between. The character of Peter Pan, written at the beginning of the 20th century by the Scottish author J.M. Barrie, was based on the author’s older brother, who died in an ice-skating accident when he was 14. Their mother said her child “never grew up.”
I’m not someone who believes things were better in the centuries before hospitals and vaccinations, or that there’s any right way to die. My mother was given large doses of morphine in her last days; she was grateful for it then, and I remain so today. Nor am I advocating, necessarily, the “natural” course of things in a world where technology irrefutably makes life — and death — better. I am saying that there’s something overly sanitized in our devotion to Maynard now. Look, she was so beautiful and, poof, now she’s gone. The dignity thing is a red herring, in my opinion, which privileges our voyeurism and consoles the control freaks among us, allowing us to fantasize that in death we can still be young and strong and in charge of outcomes and to look past the bare fact that life and death are unfair, disgusting, and heartbreaking sometimes, and there’s nothing at all to be done about that.