Autonomy or Worthiness? How to Find Dignity in Death

There is dignity in living and dignity in dying, because the concept of “dignity” is inseparable from our humanity. Even when our autonomy is lost, all people can still undergo suffering and death with a noble and dignified serenity.

Margaux Killackey


It was gray and raining the day we buried my grandmother.

When the prayers ended, my mother asked me to retrieve one of the red roses for my grandfather to put on the casket, as he made his last goodbye to his wife of fifty-three years. I remember feeling at a loss as I set about trying to find one flawless rose for him. My grandfather was always bringing my grandmother red roses, each one a token of his enduring love. How could a single rose be fit to assume the symbol of his faithful heart, able to love through both life and death?

I recalled this powerful moment when I read Dr. Aaron Rothstein’s essay, “All Death is Death Without Dignity.” He asserts that the “Death With Dignity” movement has found itself making an ultimately incoherent statement. Death has no dignity, he argues. Rather, it is the life that we led that is dignified. “The people we have chosen to become,” he writes, “and the ways in which we have chosen to spend our lives are the only things that matter at the end.” Death itself, he argues, is ugly and agonizing.

I wonder. Dr. Rothstein’s own thesis seems to be built upon a mistaken understanding of the word “dignity.” There is dignity in living and dignity in dying, because the concept of “dignity” is inseparable from our humanity. This is true even during the process—and indeed the very moment—during which the soul is separated from the body of a human being. We get a glimpse of this reality in the innate sense that we must respect dead bodies—even the dead bodies of people whose lives were not admirable.

Dr. Rothstein writes, “If we want our loved ones to retain dignity in death we ought to look at the lives they lived.” This is certainly true—a life well lived is a key component of a dignified death. But it seems that we are missing the whole picture of a person’s life if we do not also include one's very death as an attribute of dignity one can merit.

We need not look far to see that our culture has a perverse view of death. On one hand, our culture embraces certain kinds of death, such as legalized abortion, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide, classifying them as “merciful” or “empowering.” Pope St. John Paul II calls this mindset the “Culture of Death,” in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. On the other hand, Americans reveal their interior disgust with and horror at death as they deck their lawns with bloody zombie corpses and skeletons in anticipation of October 31st. Ironically, our culture desires certain kinds of death and yet is repulsed and terrified by death. It’s no wonder such a statement as “death with dignity” could so incoherently refer to “choosing how one dies.”

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Margaux Killackey, a spring 2015 John Jay Fellow, is the Deputy Assistant Director at the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & American Founding.