Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Sad coda

On Friday Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes took their own lives in the Dignitas apartment in Zurich - a sad coda to a distinguished musical career and marriage of 54 years. Their son and daughter were with them at the time. Lady Joan had advanced cancer, and Sir Edward was going blind and deaf, and according to the radio couldn't conceive of living without her. I'm not going to break my habit of refraining from judging, but it's worth noting a few things in the light of the event.

The reporting of their deaths was striking: not long ago it would have been described as a 'suicide pact', because that's what it was. Downes' manager Jonathan Groves said the couple were inseparable and would have reached the decision together, I read. I notice how the media are allowing language to be rewritten, like calling Dignitas a 'clinic' which my dictionary defines as 'a place in which patients are given medical treatment or advice'.... Another feature of the articles is the detail of the reporting of the death bed scene - which is odd, since physician-assisted suicide is being rebranded as assisted dying; and normal deaths are not described because they are intensely private. Is it a normal death, or extraordinary? Is it plain dying, or physician assisted suicide?

And of course the mere fact of the deaths and their reporting is a reminder that, although the Falconer amendment was defeated in the Lords last week, that was by no means the end of the matter. It's not the end of the campaign by Dignitas in Switzerland and Dignity in Dying in the UK to get our laws on suicide changed. It should give us a jolt to work on improving, if possible, our laws surrounding the end of life.

A tangental thought: it's a pity that a myth such as that disability or suffering spells a diminution of viable or valuable life has such prevalence. In fact, it can be the source of prodigious beauty. Beethoven wrote most of his great symphonies, late quartets, Missa Solemnis etc in spite of his increasing deafness. At the performance of his 9th symphony he had to be turned round to see the tumultuous applause of the audience, as he could hear neither that nor his music. He wept. But he never gave up, though he must have been agonisingly tempted. What the world would have missed if Beethoven had believed the modern myth! It's a lie.

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