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Atheism, assisted suicide and the need for more dignity and self-determination at the end of life.

Religion gave us bonding rituals. A secular world, might need new rituals, more self-determination, dignity and a conscious decision.

Photo of Manuela Gsponer
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Exit is a Swiss association for human dying, assisting people past cure to plan their end-of-life experience and help them to pass away (assisted suicide). Regardless, wether one is for or or against euthanasia, exit actively tries to bring back dignity in the end-of-life experience. To do this, they published a brochure with 10 stories told by relatives about the end-of-life experiences of their beloved ones (Mothers, sisters, friends,...).

The stories all talk about dignity. About the possibility to choose, how and where to die. About the deep wish not to depend on someone elses arbitrariness. To have the liberty to listen to ones own body and soul, and to do what seems to be right for oneself. 

I am a member of EXIT myself. I am 39, very healthy, atheist, and a mother of 2 kids. When my kids where born, I felt the need to define my values in life and to define in which mindset I want to raise my children. This let to the decision to quit religion (catholic). Many things at the end of life are (at least in my region) influenced by religion. The priest visits, relatives guard the dying person, suicide is seen as a sin, after having past away, there is a fixed ritual from lying in repose, to the dead office and the burial. When becoming an atheist, one breaks this well defined ritual. I wanted to help my relatives and myself, by overthinking all this process and thinking about the way I want to die already now (just in case, something happens right now). If I am ill post cure, Exit will help me, to quit hospital or stop medication. To be able to do so, I had to sign an advance health care directive. Being able to leave this earth in dignity might therefore be a decision one has to make well in advance of becoming ill or being close to the end of life.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

1. Nowadays keeping ones dignity at the end of life might need a conscious decision earlier in life. 2. Religious rituals fall apart in a more and more secular world. Death and end-of-life rituals might need to be redefined.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chandra Shekhar

Photo of Sherri McElroy

At the death bed of my non-religious partner, the religious practices of Christianity, Catholicism and Judaism took over. The prayers, chanting and rosaries surrounded the bed partly because those of us closest to him didn't have an alternative rite of passage planned. It took me by surprise. In the chaos of care taking I just hadn't considered this. In retrospect it was an ironic scene for a man without religiously beliefs to be submitted to everyone else's traditions...if you knew him it was humorous. No one has a playbook for the non-religious death passage. Maybe we need a guide to aid a conversation with our loved ones. 

Photo of James Takayesu

To have certainty around how, and when, we die might avoid unexpected hospitalization and and unintentional medicalization of death.  The laws, and medical societies, are against this presently.  But it deserves discussion if we are to change the status quo.

Photo of Shane Zhao

These are great provocations Manuela. In both religious and non-religious communities, there are traditions & rituals that define how we should behave during the end of life process. What would happen when those expectations are no longer in place? How might we redefine the role of faith and spirituality in this conversation? 

When we start to open up discussions about "reimagining" the end of life we'll also have to address the rituals that came before. Some experiences might be dramatically different while some reimagined experiences might be adaptations of old rituals. Looking forward to the radical conversations that might emerge in the upcoming weeks!

Photo of Hattie Bryant

Yes, the secularization of our culture does make it harder for so many to figure out what to do with this thing called death.