An Honourable Death
A woman out jogging in a park at dawn saw a smoke drift rising from a patch of blackened earth. Lying on the ground in the middle of it was what looked to be a mannequin with its legs half bent and arms raised in a peculiar, pugilistic pose.
There was a shopping trolley at the scene, adding another layer of curiosity to what must have seemed a strange tableau. The smell of fuel hung heavy in the air and, it being too early in the day for barbecues, the woman’s first thought was that somebody had been burning garbage.
Stopping mid-run, deciding to take a closer look, another thought then struck her: that the mannequin lying on the ground was no shop window dummy.
David Buckel was a lawyer of some considerable renown. After a successful career defending the civil rights of LGBT communities, Buckel changed track, utilising his talents in support of environmental causes.
One spring morning just before sunrise, Buckel took himself to a corner of his local park and doused himself in petrol. Before leaving his apartment, he’d emailed letters of explanation to various news outlets and, in the shopping trolley he used to transport his apparatus, Buckel left another one addressed ‘For the police’.
By his side was a third letter intended for whoever would be first to find his charred remains: a handwritten note, apologising for the mess.
Self-immolation as a form of political protest is unusual in the West. In other cultures, usually those with a Hindu or Buddhist tradition, the act is long established.
It was the Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức who came to personify the practice of auto-cremation in the modern Western mind. In 1963, while protesting the state persecution of Buddhists, Quảng Đức self-immolated in the middle of a Saigon road using the contents of a can of petrol and a burning match.
The monk’s last act was captured by American photojournalist Malcolm Brown.
‘I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting and that protected me from the horror of the thing,’ said Brown, whose work that day was to win him an award.
After the death of Quảng Đức, a spate of self-immolations in the US and Asia were carried out by those protesting the Vietnam War. The practice was also adopted in parts of Eastern Europe during the years of Soviet expansion and, more recently, protest-suicides by burning became a feature of the Arab Spring.
In India, where self-immolation is practiced for several reasons, including protest, the number of those who choose to undertake the act rank among the highest in the world. In recent times, record numbers of Tibetans have also opted to set themselves on fire. Last year alone, there were 148 confirmed cases—mostly monks and nuns and teenagers—who torched their bodies while calling for a free Tibet.
In his letters to news media and the police, Buckel cited the actions of the dead Tibetans. His own motivations were environmental, he told them, and his methods, a metaphor.
‘Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves,’ he wrote.
‘Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home…,”
He added, ‘I hope it is an honourable death that might serve others.’
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, reactions to Buckel’s death were mixed.
Among those who knew Buckel, his death was mourned and his life widely eulogised. One friend commented how she thought he’d ‘wanted to jolt the world’ from its torpor, while his husband hoped his death would send a ‘wake-up call to all those who care about the Earth.’
Outside of his circle, there was little to suggest that his suicide was perceived as the act of honour Buckel had intended it to be.
One local speaking to a reporter wondered how someone could do that to themselves, before concluding, ‘It was a terrible way to go.’
Another said they saw police and firefighters stumbling around ‘dumbfounded’ at the scene, although photos posted on social media soon afterwards show first responders to be, on the whole, impassive.
One photo—a close-up of the body taken just before it was covered by tarpaulin—was tweeted to newspapers with a message along the lines of ‘Wanna use my pic?’
On hearing the news, one woman said she’d gone to the site where Buckel had given up his body and sprinkled wild flower seeds on the newly blackened earth.
A photograph tweeted some hours later shows life in the park returned to its usual rhythm: a few feet away from it where it happened, children are busy playing ball games. A young couple are seated around a picnic blanket. A man stares at the sky with his hands placed on his hips.
In the image, the fine spring morning that Buckel didn’t live to see has become a sunny day. The only indication of something having been amiss are the traffic cones, one placed either side of where the lawyer’s body scorched the earth.
In India, the sight of a burning protestor running through a crowd has become familiar to the point that the practice has begun to lose its impact, say social commentators. The same cannot be said of Brooklyn where Buckel lived, of late, and chose to die. His neighbourhood—a place of coffee shops and juice bars, moms pushing strollers, and dogs dressed in little clothes—is not normally witness to scenes of flaming self-destruction.
Buckel used his body as a beacon, but it’s doubtful that his message will be heard by a world hooked on fossil fuels. Nor is it clear if his actions will ‘help others give a voice to our home’. In the final reckoning, we can only hope it might—as Buckel himself did. In the lighting of the match, as abhorrent as the flame was, there was honour in the light, and there was hope.
Victoria Briggs is an award-winning and Pushcart-nominated writer with work published in The Stockholm Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Structo, Litro, Prole, Unthology, The Nottingham Review and Burning House Press (the liminal spaces issue), among others. She lives in London, where she works as a journalist, and tweets @vicbriggs.
Featured photo credit: Amanda Ollinik @Allunderonemoon