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Mayfield: Life and death decisions should be our own

by Rich Mayfield

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas’s strong words were rendered mute by the revered conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, last week when the couple flew to Switzerland to take advantage of that country’s liberal laws on assisted suicide. With the help of the organization Dignitas, Mr. and Mrs. Downes drank a small vial of poison and ended their lives as they had spent the last 54 years, together.

Euthanasia is a Greek word meaning, “good or happy death,” but I am sure there are many who see the Downes’ joint demise as anything but. In spite of Mrs. Downes’ terminal cancer diagnosis, many critics will decry her suicide as morally repugnant, justifiably illegal and, for the religious, a mortal sin. Her husband’s voluntary act of joining her in death will cause even more consternation. Although Sir Edward’s health was failing – he had become nearly blind and deaf – he might easily have lived for a number of additional years. But the thought of living without his beloved spouse was apparently unacceptable, and so they flew to Zurich to die.

The arguments against such an unalterable action have been made in a myriad of ways over the years.

The primary question in most of these battles revolves around the issue of responsibility. Who is ultimately responsible for your life? Some would suggest that the answer is obvious and that it falls to each individual to make his or her own decisions regarding the care of their own lives. Such a rationale makes the Downes’ decision an honorable one. No one has the right, many would argue, to tell someone either how or how long one must live.

But, of course, things can get very complicated when others become involved. We are bound by laws and shaped by standards that do indeed inform our decisions as to both how and how long we are to live. Most folk in the medical profession feel duty bound to do all they can to prolong life. Many among the clergy see any attempt to accelerate the dying process as a blatant interference with the intentions of God. Some others see even the decision to ease a person into death through the use of pain-killing drugs as a slippery slope to a more liberal acceptance of euthanasia practices. It is a highly charged and extraordinarily complicated issue, to be sure.

For the Downes, the decision was made easier because of the support of their children. A son, Caractacus Downes, issued this statement after the death of his parents: “After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems. 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.”

My past experience of being with a good many folk as they lay dying has certainly shaped my opinions about my own final days. The needless suffering I have witnessed, the extraordinary prolongation of a few last hours and the feverish attempts to defeat the inevitable, have convinced me of the value of a “good or happy death.”

The growing popularity and utilization of the hospice movement has allowed many to spend their last days in peace, knowing that the unavoidable will at least be attended to with compassion and comfort.

Although most of us tend to forgo thoughts of our own dying and death, it can be an enormous gift to family and friends to take the time now to carefully describe in a living will, or other similar form, the kind of care you wish and the procedures you will permit in your final days. Living-will forms are available on-line and from many religious organizations. Their legality continues to be argued, but the clarity of your desires will always be appreciated by those who someday must make decisions on your behalf.

Judging from comments reported in various news media, the Downes family and friends seem not to be overly surprised by the couples’ decision to die together. It appears to be in keeping with their frequently expressed philosophy of life which, as can be seen in this dramatic example, can also shape one’s death.

Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to editor@summitdaily.com.


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