Gerald A. Larue, an ordained minister, scholar and eventual agnostic who, as the first president of the Hemlock Society, was an early and leading advocate of giving the terminally ill the option to end their own lives, died on Sept. 17 in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 98.
His son, David, said the cause was a stroke.
“We had the chance to put him on a ventilator,” David Larue said, “but given that he’s the founding president of the Hemlock Society, I’d discussed that with him and knew that was not what he wanted to do.”
Professor Larue, who joined the religion department at the University of Southern California in 1958, challenged conventions long before he became involved in what is sometimes called the death with dignity movement. His own professors in college nicknamed him Heretic Larue, and he ceased working as a minister in 1953, the year he received his doctorate in theology. Years later, as his studies expanded to include archaeology, he enjoyed trying to debunk biblical stories.
Lazarus rising from the tomb? Professor Larue argued that he might have awakened from a coma. In 1993, he told Time magazine that he had helped stage a hoax involving a fake fragment of Noah’s ark that was central to a film, “The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark,” which was broadcast on CBS. A member of the Skeptics Society, he said he wanted to expose what he called shoddy research by the production company, Sun International Pictures.
Professor Larue, who was born and ordained in Canada, made his way from Christianity to what he called positive humanism and then the free-thought movement. As he put it in a video interview with U.S.C. in 2002, he was trying to answer a question: “How can we enhance the human dimensions that really bind us together, as opposed to the religions or the nationalities that separate us?”
He wrote scores of books and papers, often on sensitive topics. In 1983, he published “Sex and the Bible.” Two years later, he wrote “Euthanasia and Religion.”
His interest in end-of-life issues began in full in the 1970s. In 1976, he attended a retreat about death and dying with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the noted psychiatrist who helped change attitudes about caring for people who are dying. Four years later, he helped found the Hemlock Society with Derek Humphry, a British journalist who had written “Jean’s Way,” a book about his terminally ill wife’s decision to commit suicide in 1975.
Professor Larue served as president of the Hemlock Society for much of the 1980s, a role that drew criticism in some quarters at U.S.C. He retired from the religion department in 1981 and quickly moved to the gerontology department, where he was an adjunct professor.
Among the courses he helped develop was one on death and dying. One of his goals was to confront his young students with the reality and inevitability of death. To do so, he would circulate some of the cremated remains of Herman Harvey, a former psychology professor.
Professor Larue liked to say of his late colleague, “He is still teaching.”
In 2005, a successor to the Hemlock Society called End-of-Life Choices merged with another group to form Compassion & Choices, a leading advocacy group that has fought for the passage of right-to-die legislation in several states.
Gerald Alexander Larue was born on June 20, 1916, in Calgary, Alberta, the oldest son of a salesman who would lose his job during the Depression. Professor Larue attended the University of Alberta at Edmonton, where he received bachelor’s degrees in arts and divinity.
He was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada in 1945 and worked as a pastor in a remote area before enrolling in graduate school at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. He received his doctorate in theology there in 1953.
Before joining U.S.C., he was a member of the National Council of Churches’ Committee on the Use and Understanding of the Bible.
In 2004, he received U.S.C.’s Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also a visiting professor and lecturer at many other universities and led archaeological expeditions in Israel.
Besides his son, survivors include two grandchildren. Another son, Gerald Jr., died in 2001. Professor Larue’s two marriages ended in divorce.
David Larue said that his father liked religion for all the good it could inspire people to do, but that he was not much for worship and praise — or rigidity.
“He was really trying to define how you can live your life without external laws that were set down thousands of years ago that were in many cases wrong,” he said.