"The whole thing gave me a terrible feeling," a friend told me, "something deeper than plain old moral revulsion."
She had just read the joint obituary of Sir Edward Downes, 85, the noted English conductor and his beautiful, talented, devoted wife Joan, 74. They had gone to Zurich to end it all at a clinic run by Dignitas, which arranges suicides under Swiss law.
Sir Edward was the world-renowned director of the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden. His first job there had been as a prompter to Maria Callas in 1952, and by the end of his career five decades later he'd gone on to conduct something like a thousand performances of 49 different operas there. In 1991, he would be knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
Joan Downes ballerina, choreographer and later television producer had been his assistant for years. It would be hard to think of a couple whose lives had been so full of music, art, talent, joy, mutual devotion and life itself. But Joan Downes had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Sir Edward had grown almost blind and increasingly deaf; he was losing touch with the music he loved and made.
So they went off to a beautiful mountain setting, their grown children by their side, drank a small amount of clear liquid that rendered them unconscious, and died hand-in-hand.
To quote the statement issued by their son and daughter: "After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems."
As their son, Caractacus Downes, told the London Evening Standard, "They wanted to be next to each other when they died. They held hands across the beds. It is a very civilized way to be able to end your life."
The dispatch from Jill Lawless of the Associated Press continued the theme, noting that their deaths "were a poignant coda to Edward Downes' illustrious musical career...."
Reading this account of their lives, and deaths, you could almost hear the strains of Albinoni's "Adagio in G Minor" in the background.
So why would this "poignant coda to Edward Downes' illustrious musical career" give my friend a terrible feeling?
I think I know. Part of the reason is the disconnect between how we are supposed to respond to this story, and how, I have to hope, many of us did.
Strangely enough, my first thoughts on reading the Downes' joint obituary were of a B-movie made in 1973 a kind of noir sci-fi fantasy called "Soylent Green" about a future dystopia, circa 2022. By then the planet has been made an ugly, crowded, sweaty place by overpopulation, global warming, an evil corporation and the other usual villains.
Despite its essentially simple-minded script, some of the movie's scenes keep coming back to me, demonstrating that the visual sense has a life and power of its own, independent of the critical judgment. As in a nightmare.
One of the characters in the movie, played by Edward G. Robinson in his latter years, is an aged professor who still reads books. Indeed, he and his colleagues, throwbacks all by 2022, are nicknamed "books" by the rest of their society. He is so depressed by what the world has become, and so shocked by what he's uncovered behind the scenes, that he avails himself of the services offered by one of the government's assisted-suicide clinics. In the movie, naturally enough, such suicide is called Going Home. It might as well have been called Dignitas.
Before taking the hemlock and drifting away, the old professor gets to see a video of how the world used to be, which is a lot like what we can see any time on the Nature Channel beautiful countryside, romping zebras and giraffes, life-filled oceans, maybe the kind of Alpine scenery available in the vicinity of Zurich, Switzerland.
I knew what I was supposed to feel while watching this flick: How could man have destroyed this beautiful planet, and how soon can I join up for the next socially enlightened crusade, whether against overpopulation or for euthanasia?
My problem was that I didn't feel that way at all. Why would someone as valuable as the professor, rich in years and experience and with so much learning to pass on, choose to kill himself? Of course that was only a plot twist, and I knew all along it was just good ol' Edward G. Robinson up there on the screen hamming it up as always.
What made the alarm bells go off in my mind was the manipulation of my feelings, or rather the clumsy attempt at it. Death, too, was being commodified in our consumer culture. I was supposed to think of suicide as a reasonable, even noble and aesthetically attractive option when life gets crummy.
At $9,300 a customer, Dignitas has made suicide tourism the final deluxe vacation. Think of it as a coda to your life/career, which in our time grow synonymous (another bad sign). I was supposed to nod my head in agreement, even admiration, at this new, more civilized approach to life and death.
No doubt any number of reasons for and against exercising such an option could be adduced in your average seminar/webinar on bioethics. But the ultimate argument against suicide comes not from reason but from revelation: Choose life.
That moral imperative can't just be listed on one side of a yellow pad to be balanced by another, separate but equal argument in favor of suicide. The commandment transcends all argument. It beats somewhere within every living creature. Maybe that's why, on reading this obituary for two, we are left with a terrible feeling, something deeper than plain old moral revulsion.