The death of 'Dr. Death' (updated)

What ever happened to ... Jack Kevorkian?

Until Kevorkian died today at age 83, the once-famous "Dr. Death" had not crossed my mind in many years.

Of course, Kevorkian's passing is a major news story, and The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Associated Press and other major media quickly published in-depth obituaries. The top of the Post obit:

Jack Kevorkian, the zealous, straight-talking American doctor known as “Dr. Death” for his lifelong crusade to legalize physician-assisted suicide died on Friday at a Detroit area hospital, the Associated Press reported. He was 83 years old.

Dr. Kevorkian spent decades campaigning for the legalization of euthanasia. He served eight years in prison and was arrested numerous times for helping more than 130 patients commit suicide between 1990 and 2000, using injections, carbon monoxide and his infamous suicide machine, built from scraps for $30. Those he aided had terminal conditions such as multiple sclerosis, ALS and malignant brain tumors.

When asked in a 2010 interview by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about how it felt to take a patient’s life, Dr. Kevorkian said, “I didn’t do it to end a life. I did it to end the suffering the patient’s going through. The patient’s obviously suffering — what’s a doctor supposed to do, turn his back?”

Dying, he believed, should be an intimate and dignified process, something that many terminally ill are denied, he said.

Meanwhile, the fine folks at ReligionLink -- who do such a magnificent job of keeping Godbeat writers on top of current trends -- rushed out a primer on what Kevorkian's death likely means to the end-of-life debate:

The death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a former pathologist who helped dozens of terminally ill people die with a suicide machine, has renewed a national debate on end-of-life issues that never went away completely, even after Kevorkian was sentenced to prison in 1999.

In fact, a Gallup poll in May found that physician-assisted suicide remains the most contentious moral issue in the country, with 45 percent saying it is morally acceptable and 48 percent saying it is morally wrong.

And the ferocity of the so-called “death panels” controversy during the health care reform debate  remains so potent that in January the Obama administrationreversed course on end-of-life counseling regulations due to concerns that passing the regulations would rekindle the furor.

Beyond the immediate reactions prompted by Kevorkian’s death, the debate over end-of-life issues can be traced to technological advances and new brain research, and also to questions being raised by believers, particularly in Catholicism and Judaism.

There's much more detail on the ReligionLink site, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

As for the obits themselves, there's not much religion to be found. Wondering what, if anything, Kevorkian believed about the afterlife? I didn't see any of those details in the obits I read.

The AP obit hints at some of Kevorkian's clashes with religion:

Kevorkian, who died Friday at a Michigan hospital at 83, insisted suicide with the help of a medical professional was a civil right.

His gaunt, hollow-cheeked appearance gave him a ghoulish, almost cadaverous look and helped earn him the nickname "Dr. Death." But Kevorkian likened himself to Martin Luther King and Gandhi and called physicians who didn't support him "hypocritic oafs."

"Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity," he once said. "I put myself in my patients' place. This is something I would want."

Kevorkian jabbed his finger in the air as he publicly mocked politicians and religious leaders. He was a magnet for the news media, once talking to reporters with his head and wrists restrained in a stock reminiscent of the Medieval era.

But there's no exploration of what Kevorkian believed about religion. I found mention of Kevorkian on the website but missed any reference to Kevorkian as an atheist in the obits I read.

This sentence in the Times obit stood out to me:

In 1976, bored with medicine, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., where he spent 12 years producing an unsuccessful film about Handel’s “Messiah,” painting and writing, supporting himself with part-time pathology positions at two hospitals.

Did faith -- or lack thereof -- play any role in his production of the "Messiah" film?

If you spot any news reports that tackle the questions raised in this post or address the issues pointed out by ReligionLink, please share the links in the comments section.

  Update: Be sure to check out the comments for some great links. Thanks, readers!

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