When Jack Kevorkian died Friday, I was on vacation in the Scottish highlands. For once in my life I was without a cell phone, but someone I was with got the news. I mentioned Kevorkian's death to an Israeli woman on our tour.
"I thought he died years ago," she said. She was not alone.
I've run into plenty of people who didn't know he was still around. And in a sense, Kevorkian the assisted suicide crusader had ceased to exist.
Since being released from prison four years ago, he had mostly faded into obscurity. He largely lived the life of a cranky recluse. He divided his days between the Royal Oak Public Library and a cheap apartment across the street. There was a time when I felt that I knew him better than any other journalist. I covered all his trials for the New York Times, did major pieces for Vanity Fair and Esquire, and saw him frequently for six years in the 1990's.But since he was released from prison, I've only seen him once. He told his lawyer he didn't want to talk to me, that I was too objective, which is actually sort of a backhanded compliment for a journalist. However, there is a very real question about his legacy.
Will Kevorkian be remembered as a medical pioneer -- or just as a ghoulish crank from the 1990's, who titillated our morbid side in an era when the economy was booming and nobody had heard of Osama bin Laden?
The answer is more complicated.
Kevorkian often told me back then that he wouldn't live to be seventy. None of his family had, and he was convinced he wouldn't either. Ironically, his reputation might be entirely different today, had he been right.
Before he turned seventy he had made his brand of physician-assisted suicide de facto legal in metropolitan Detroit.
Prosecutors indicated they would no longer charge him. But Kevorkian had a self-destructive side. He became more reckless about what he did.
Eventually, he went from assisted suicide to euthanasia, gave a tape of him killing a man to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, and wound up in prison for second-degree murder.
Though he had insisted for years he'd starve himself to death if imprisoned, he changed his mind once jailed. Out of the limelight, he was largely forgotten.
Yet that doesn't mean he didn't have an impact. Washington and Oregon have legalized limited forms of physician-assisted death. Doctors are more sensitive to pain management issues than they were before Dr. Death came on the scene.
Awareness of and support for the hospice movement was given a big, if unintentional boost by Kevorkian, if only because it seemed to many a far better choice than dying in a rusty van. Yet the problem he forced us to focus on hasn't gone away.
Medical science can now prolong existence for many for whom life is a living hell. A long time ago, Kevorkian told me what he was doing eventually would become legal for the wrong reasons.
There are so many of us aging baby boomers, he said, that the generations that followed wouldn't be willing to stand the expense of keeping us all alive.
Kevorkian may have been a crank. But he wasn't always wrong.