The recent self-administered deaths of the famed British musician Sir Edward Downs and his wife together, at a Swiss clinic, witnessed and calmly announced afterwards by their children, raises troubling questions, especially for those Christians who consider themselves staunchly and consistently pro-life from womb-to-tomb with no exceptions.
Downes, whose brilliant orchestrations had bedazzled the concert world, had at 85 years of age become almost totally blind and increasingly deaf, while his wife, a former ballet dancer, at 74, was terminally ill from cancer. One can not be touched by the graciousness of their arranging to stage this, the final performance of their long and devoted lives, together. But aside from this particular note of grace, was what they did ethically acceptable? And if it was not, we might ask exactly why not -- was it because they wished for death or simply because they themselves did what caused their deaths to happen?
I ask this question because I cannot but think about so many of the early Christian martyrs who so strongly wished for death, not just to give witness to the faith, but because they so strongly longed for a better life in heaven. So much so that someone like the Syrian bishop Ignatius of Antioch (who was executed in Rome in AD 110) could write ahead of time to the Christians in Rome begging them not to try to intercede to have his life spared and who even went so far as to exclaim that if the lions and other beasts hesitated to attack him, he himself would "compel them to bite me." So do we honor the memory of Ignatius as a saint because he longed for death to become, as he put it "truly a Christian," while we condemn Downes and his wife, who lacking any religious beliefs and having instructed that there be no funeral or memorial service, wished for death together in a way as to not further compound their sufferings? And if so, is the morality of suicide entirely dependent on the motivation rather than the act -- whether direct or indirect -- of self-destruction?
I wish I knew the answer to this, in part because I think that modern medicine has reached the point of being able to keep people physically alive long beyond the point of where life seems still worth living. Downes and his wife apparently felt this way. But so, in his own way, did Ignatius of Antioch. So was it only because Ignatius believed in a better life beyond this one, that his death wish became an act, not of despair but of faith-filled heroism?
However, it also seems to me that the Downes' intention was as extreme in one way as was that of Ignatius in another. As the Buddha taught us long ago, suffering is endemic to all living things. But as Jesus taught us, for humans, it can also be transformative. Certainly, while we may not be obliged to seek it out, it is only in accepting the suffering that unavoidably comes our way that we will have lived fully.
R W Kropf July 27, 2009 Deathwish.doc 09-07-27.html