The Thanatorium in “Soylent Green”

The 1973 movie Soylent Green posits a catastrophically polluted and over-populated future society in which suicide is not only legal but encouraged and facilitated by the state. In the New York City of 2022 (according to this fictional timeline), there exist institutions where people can end their lives peacefully and beautifully.

In the full context of the movie’s storyline, the thanatorium turns out to be a pretty sinister place because – spoiler – the government is secretly recycling humans as food. But divorced from that sci-fi gimmick and considered as a model of aesthetic ritual and human agency, there are many worse ways to go than that depicted in this abridged clip, showing the final moments of Edward G. Robinson’s character Sol Roth:

This scene is afforded a special poignancy by the fact that Robinson was nearing the end of his own life, and died two weeks after filming Soylent Green.

If you’re interested in the topic of fictional thanatoria, I strongly recommend philosophy professor Matthew Burstein’s essay, “The Thanatoria of Soylent Green: On Reconciling the Good Life with the Good Death”, which appears in the anthology Bioethics at the Movies (2009).

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