David Buckel '87 was a prominent lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

April 17, 2018

Cornell Law Alumnus Self-Immolates to Protest Destruction of Planet

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David Buckel law ’87, ended his career as an environmental activist and prominent gay rights lawyer by setting himself on fire and burning to death on Saturday morning in a protest against environmental deterioration.

Buckel drenched himself in fossil fuels before starting the fire. He left behind two notes explaining his choice in a shopping cart near his body, according to the New York Daily News. He also emailed them to major press centers, including The New York Times.

“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,” Buckel wrote in his note, as reported by The New York Times. “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.”

“I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others,” Buckel wrote, according to the New York Daily News.

Buckel was well-known for his work with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a legal organization that works on behalf of the LGBT community, according to its website, where he served as the former Marriage Project Director.

During his time at Lambda Legal, he championed cases including Nabozny v. Podlesny, which said that students should be protected from verbal and physical anti-gay abuse, and Lewis v. Harris, which said that New Jersey’s marriage laws violated equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution for same-sex couples, according to Lambda Legal.

In a statement released on Saturday, Lambda Legal commended Buckel as an “indefatigable attorney and advocate” and wrote that it “will honor his life by continuing his fight for a better world.”

In March 2006, Buckel returned to Cornell for the Public Interest Law Career Symposium, where he served on a panel for “Domestic Civil Rights.” Buckel also received the Cornell Law School Public Service Award in 2007.

In a Cornell Law School spotlight, which described Buckel as “making history”, Buckel’s work arguing against prominent national organizations including the Boy Scouts of America, the military and the IRS is highlighted.

John Carberry, senior director of media relations and news, said that the University would not be able to comment on Buckel’s passing at this time.

According to The New York Times, Buckel was also the lead attorney in Brandon v. County of Richardson. This case about a murdered transgender man was turned into a movie, “Boys Don’t Cry,” which Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for.

After several years of advocating for gay rights, Buckel’s activism eventually shifted to the environment.

According to The Times, Buckel was a “master composter” at the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn and  chose to walk to and from work. He also wrote a composting guide for urban community composting. At the conclusion of the guide, Buckel noted that “as with most choices of what’s right, it presents more challenges than the other choice.”

“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” Buckel wrote in his suicide note, according to the The New York Times.

His remains were found in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Saturday morning and a passerby initially “thought it was a pile of garbage because of the shopping cart” nearby, according to The New York Times article.

“I apologize to you for the mess,” Buckel wrote in one of the notes, according to The New York Daily News.