Death Panels refuted, but not in Serbia, Japan or the Arctic

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, August 21st, 2009

The elderly are a burden and should bow out, saving society money.

"The Ballad of Narayama", a 1983 Japanese film about ubasute refers to a custom in which an elderly relative is carried to a remote place and left to die of dehydration and exposure. The practice, couched in legend, is reminiscent of the infamous "death panels" critics claim President Obama wants to institute into his healthcare reform bill.

“The Ballad of Narayama”, a 1983 Japanese film by director Shohei Imamura, refers to a custom called ubasute, in which an elderly relative is carried to a remote place and left to die of dehydration and exposure. The practice, couched in legend, is reminiscent of the infamous “death panels” that critics exaggeratedly claim President Obama wants to institute into his healthcare reform bill.

Critics of President Obama’s healthcare reform claim this is what was meant by a section of a proposed bill entitled “Advance Care Planning Consultation.” Advance care planning practitioners were called “death panels” by critics and a media volcano erupted.

Proponents of the bill argue that the disputed passage was actually intended to inform elders about end-of-life issues, such as access to a good hospice and how to create a living will.

At issue is the idea of senicide, or the abandonment to death of the elderly. The concept may seem outrageous to citizens of this country, but in some spots on the planet it’s a time-honored tradition, or at least a time-honored legend.

In the Dinaric Mountains of Serbia, lapot refers to the legendary practice of killing one’s parents or other elderly family members once they have become a financial burden. “In the area of Homolje, Zajecar, and Negotin Krajina, the ritual existed and was practiced on a large scale until the end of the nineteenth century, and even in the early twentieth century,” reads a passage from Branimir Anzulovic’s history of the region, “Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide”.

Elderly were killed with sticks and sometimes with rocks or an axe. Usually, the victim’s children committed the act. In a grisly passage from Heavenly Serbia, Anzulovic quotes an earlier lapot text: “In Krepoljin and some other places in eastern Serbia, members of the household used to prepare cornmush, put it on the old man’s or woman’s head, and strike it with an axe until the person died. They did it this way to make it appear that the mush was the killer, not themselves.”

The Inuit are often cited as a people that once practiced senicide. Early 20th century explorers such as Knud Rasmussen described how during times of hardship, elders who could not keep up were left alone on the land, to be finished off by the elements. In the 1950 novel “Top of the World”, by Hans Ruesch, inspiration for the film “The Savage Innocents”, which came a decade later and starred Anthony Quinn, an old woman named Powtee is left to die on the sea ice.

However, in a paper entitled, “Suicide Among the Canadian Inuit”, lead-author Antoon Leenaars, of the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, says that “although suicide in the elderly occurred, later observers noted that both Weyer and Boas [anthropologists] may have exaggerated the reports from specific cases in specific communities.”

In Japan, ubasute refers to a custom in which an elderly relative is carried to a remote place and left to die of dehydration and exposure. One famous tale is of a son that carries his mother up a mountain on his back. She snaps twigs from branches of the trees they pass so he’ll be able to find his way home.

The 1983 film, “The Ballad of Narayama”, based on a 1958 film of the same title and an earlier novel by Shichiro Fukazawa, tells the story of Orin, a woman in a rural Japanese village that is approaching 70. After tying up the loose ends in her life, her son, Tatsuhei, drags her up Mount Narayama to die. The film is directed by Shohei Imamura and won the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1983. It brought many Americans face to face with a concept they knew little about.

“Watching Ballad of Narayama I was forced to confront my own feelings about the morality of suicide,” writes one reviewer, on the film website, IMDb. “Both during and since viewing the film, I have been haunted by the idea of a loved one slowly freezing to death on a mountain—for my benefit.”

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