Norway lost another symbol of its national conscience on Wednesday, when doctor and professor Per Fugelli died eight years after being diagnosed with cancer. He used his terminal illness to try to demystify the process of dying, and what it means for human dignity.
Fugelli went through five operations and years of cancer treatments that he shared publicly through speeches and his book Døden, skal vi danse (Death, shall we dance?). As a career teacher, he thought it was important to be as open as possible about having cancer, and spoke often about what it was like to be chronically ill.
He also contributed to several TV programs about life and death, and Norwegian filmmaker Erik Poppe is finishing up a documentary on Fugelli’s life and philosophy. “It’s a sad day,” Poppe told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday afternoon, after news broke that Fugelli had died at his home on the scenic coast of Jæren, Western Norway. He was 73.
Fugelli was born in nearby Sandnes on December 7, 1943 and worked as a district doctor in Northern Norway during the 1970s. He later became a professor of social medicine, first at the University of Bergen and then the University of Oslo. He rose to national fame as a member of the board of Verdikomisjonen (Values Commission) that was set up by former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik in 1998 to identify and examine social values in Norway.
Fugelli’s own values included great regard for human life in all its diversity, and he was an outspoken opponent of the strict immigration regulations of Norway’s conservative government during the past four years. He could also scold Labour Party politicians for not allowing more refugees to settle in Norway. Asked by newspaper Dagsavisen in the winter of 2016 who he’d most like to be stuck in an elevator with, Fugelli answered “Jonas Gahr Støre (the Labour Party leader), so that I could yell at him for Labour’s passivity in allowing (Progress Party politician) Sylvi Listhaug and her party to take command of integration and immigration policy and the shame it has brought upon the land. Labour has been too weak (in opposition).”
The retired professor was a great promoter of compassion and common decency, and he claimed that Jesus and Mohammed shared those values along with peace, sharing worldly goods with the poor. He said he had searched for a god during the course of his illness. His childhood hero was Gandhi.
Fugelli was known for his bow ties and smile and stressed the importance of one’s own “flock,” or family. His favourite places on earth were the windswept coast at Jæren, south of Stavanger, and the island of Røst off Lofoten. When his cancer became inoperable, he publicly announced he was ending treatments as well. “I’ve reached a turning point,” he told Dagsavisen. “Now comes the final act and I’ll try to live as well as possible with the people I love.” Watching the seabirds at Jæren and Røst would do him more good than chemotherapy, he reasoned.
He said he had no presecription about how to meet death, “it must be an individual project, but it can be wise to find your own turning point.” In his own case, he preferred to “live naturally” as death approached, “instead of dealing with all the trouble that goes along with cancer treatments.”
He ended up living another 19 months after uttering those words. Last month, he wrote a commentary published in newspaper Aftenposten in which he bid farewell after dying publicly for years. His article was shared and “liked” more than 80,000 times on Facebook and ranked as the “most read” in Aftenposten so far this year. He claimed Norwegian society was characterized by freedom, fairness and the confidence that Norwegians tend to have in one another. He also thanked his country for being his home and filling him with a sense of belonging. “He reminded us that this isn’t something that’s just inherited,” said Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats party. “There are values we must fight for every day.”
Fugelli won’t be fighting for them himself anymore, but his years of lectures and writings left a legacy that was already being embraced on Wednesday through the tributes that poured in. “I didn’t always agree with him politically, but he managed to touch me because he reminded us about the responsibility we all have to protect our values,” Henrik Syse, a philosopher and peace researcher who sits on the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told Aftenposten. “For that he deserves great thanks.”