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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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jeff Q

    I don’t have any extra info to add, but a question. When did the guy become a hero (for lack of a better word)? I remember at the Oscars a year or two ago watching Al Pacino (who played him in a movie) and others raving about him. Kinda surprised me.

  • Mike O.

    Here’s an article by that not only discusses Kevorkian’s beliefs in general but also what he thought of religion as it pertains to those who opposed what he was doing.

  • Bobby

    Don’t have the answer to your question, Jeff.

    Thanks much for the link, Mike.

  • Dale


    How ’bout the hometown paper, the Detroit News?

    He rejected organized religion, calling it hypocritical and a myth. At the same time, Kevorkian didn’t profess atheism either. Instead, he claimed a spiritual connection to Johann Sebastian Bach

    Oh, and the Washington Post is wrong about the origin of his nickname:

    In 1956, he wrote an article on his research and photographs of blood flow to retinas at the moment of death. The work first earned him the nickname “Dr. Death.”

    There are stories galore around the Michigan medical community of Kevorkian’s morbid interests. Nurses walking into rooms with dying patients, to find Kevorkian hanging over the patient trying to catch the moment of death. Kevorkian transfusing the blood from corpses into his own veins. I always wonder how gullible the press is when they take his claimed motivation, to relieve other’s suffering, at face value.

  • Bobby

    Another great link! Thanks for the blockquote from the hometown paper, Dale.

  • Martha

    “how it felt to take a patient’s life”

    Dr. Kevorkian was a pathologist. Any “patients” he had were already dead – until he went into supplying himself with them, that is to say.

    He wasn’t qualified as any other kind of medical professional, as far as I am aware, and he was no more entitled to diagnose those misfortunate people who wanted his help in committing suicide than I am.

  • Dale


    Stumbled on another story from the International Business Times(of all places) with some good quotes:

    Born in Pontiac, Michigan to Christian Armenian immigrants, Jack Kevorkian grew up in rural, multicultural suburb where his parents worked hard to provide a strict and religiously obedient environment. From a very young age he displayed tendencies to grapple with major Christian concepts like miracles and an all-knowing God and often railed against these ideas in his weekly Sunday school class. Unable to accept how a supernatural, omnipotent God could allow the Turkish slaughter of his entire extended family, he debated the idea of God’s existence until he realized he would never find any acceptable answers to his questions and stopped attending church entirely by the age of 12.

    I’m always amazed at people who think that, at the tender age of twelve, they have exhausted the possibilities of theodicy. Yeesh.

    There’s more:

    Kevorkian’s fascination with death began to solidify while serving his residency at the University of Michigan hospital in the 1950s. Kevorkian was so intrigued with death and the dying, he made frequent visits to the terminally ill to photograph their eyes in an attempt to determine the exact moment of death. . . . Kevorkian’s controversial views would ultimately result in his dismissal from the University of Michigan Medical Center. He continued his residency at Pontiac General Hospital eventually qualifying as a specialist by 1960.
    Following this period, Kevorkian would bounce around from hospital to hospital, never quite able to settle into a meaningful career due to his radical views, his persistence in pushing his philosophy on death, and his need to pursue his unconventional experimentation.

    This is the stuff I’ve heard about around Ann Arbor. He got bounced from the UofM residency not because of his controversial views, but because he was repeatedly caught in dying patients’ rooms, where he had no business, hovering over them waiting for the moment of death. Think this guy had issues? Where is this in all of the coverage?

    Read the whole thing. This is one of the few recent pieces where I’ve seen a journalist take on the ambiguity of Kevorkian’s interest in other people’s deaths.

  • Elijah

    Never heard some of this stuff about Kevorkian – thanks much for the links!

  • Dave

    Pushing back against the claim that he’s playing God, Kevorkian told CNN that all doctors play God.

    Interesting point, actually…

  • Stan

    Dale; Thanks for the link about Kevorkian’s Armenian Christian heritage. It tells lots about the man. His reaction to Armenian massacres proves a strong sense of humanity at a young age that he was passionate about all his life.

    The passing of Jack Kevorkian hardly ends the discussion around death with dignity. Jack Kevorkian is a hero for starting the public discussion and we can thank Kevorkian for enlightening us about the compassionate hard truths of a very tough subject.

    Kevorkian showed us an hidden issue physicians have had to deal with privately for a long time, but get more scrutiny in these times of intrusive big government religious conservatives who want to police the private relationships between doctors and patients. Many believe people should have some say in their own destiny regardless of faith. Good doctors are responsible to support their patients tough decisions and doctors are responsible to relieve pain and suffering for their patients above all else. Kevorkian was ahead of his time but history will treat him better than his contemporaries. We can thank Kevorkian for several states since passing Death with Dignity laws and the broad recognition of the importance of living wills.

  • tioedong

    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?”

    uh, didn’t anyone notice that he was a pathologist, i.e. a doctor who did autopsies on dead people, and not one who actually worked with suffering people?

  • Ray Ingles

    Dale –

    I’m always amazed at people who think that, at the tender age of twelve, they have exhausted the possibilities of theodicy. Yeesh.

    It’s interesting that theists with a ‘simple faith’ in God are admirable, but atheists with a simple ‘non-faith’ should keep quiet until they master two-odd thousand years of philosophical arguments. :)

  • Mark Baddeley

    This is off-topic, but in quick response to Ray.

    You are conflating two separate issues. If Kevorkian had grown up in an atheist or agnostic or even just religiously indifferent home then your comment would be on the money. But he grew up in a faith tradition that has well thought-out answers to these questions. The fact that at 12 (before he could really even grasp some of them properly, most likely) he’d already made a decision to reject that heritage is highly noteworthy.

    It would be similar if he grew up in an atheist heritage with a long tradition of sophisticated responses to critiques and rejected it age 12.

    There’s a difference between a ‘simple believer or non-believer in something’ and someone who rejects the faith or non-faith of their family and community at age 12.

  • Ray Ingles

    Mark Baddeley –

    There’s a difference between a ‘simple believer or non-believer in something’ and someone who rejects the faith or non-faith of their family and community at age 12.

    Because children are the natural property of the culture and worldview of the parents that raise them? I confess I don’t quite grasp the distinction you’re making here…

  • Franklin Jennings


    A human at 12 does not generally possess the full intellectual capability they will have at 30.

    Its no different than rejecting the Copenhagen School at age 12 merely because the state of life of a cat obviously doesn’t depend on whether his box is opened or closed, regardless of how much uranium comes into proximate contact with his Geiger-triggered chlorine phial.

    That’s not even addressing that your initial question was half straw-man (since the person whose comment you addressed made no mention of simple faith even being admirable among believers. Believe it or not, most believers don’t have a lot of patience for believers whose minds closed as early as Dr K’s.)

    (Short answer: Have a happy 11th, and many many more!!!)