Dignity in Dying: An Atheist's View

Dignity in Dying: An Atheist's View July 18, 2009

By way of Dangerous Intersection, I came across this sorrowful, beautiful story:

He spent his life conducting world-renowned orchestras, but was almost blind and growing deaf – the music he loved increasingly out of reach. His wife of 54 years had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So Edward and Joan Downes decided to die together.

Edward Downes, a renowned British conductor who headed the BBC Philharmonic and served for five decades as a music director for the Royal Opera House, was going both blind and deaf in the twilight of his life. Joan Downes, his wife of fifty-four years, had been his caretaker, but she had fallen ill with untreatable liver and pancreatic cancer and was given just weeks to live. Edward decided that he didn’t want to go on living without her, and so last week, the two of them traveled to Switzerland to seek the aid of the assisted-suicide group Dignitas. At Dignitas’ clinic, they each drank a lethal dose of sedatives, fell asleep and died peacefully, hand in hand. (I got a lump in my throat typing that.)

But what really caught my eye about this story was its closing passage:

Edward and Joan Downes are survived by their children and grandchildren. The family said the couple had no religious beliefs, and there would be no funeral.

The Daily Mail has an excerpt of Joan’s last letter to her family, confirming that she, and most likely her husband as well, were atheists who did not believe in an afterlife:

The letter said: ‘Now, I must tell you that even though I had hoped to be around a bit longer, death doesn’t worry me at all.

‘I have no religion and as far as I am concerned it will be an “offswitch” so after you have thought about it a bit don’t worry.’

It concluded: ‘It has been a happy and interesting life and I have no regrets. I have no idea how long I will last but I send love to you all and your extensive families.

‘Enjoy it while it lasts.’

The Downes’ courage and peaceful acceptance, not just in facing but actively seeking out a dignified death, shows clearly that a nonreligious philosophy can indeed offer consolation in the face of mortality. As Joan’s last letter said, death is nothing to fear: it’s merely an extinction, no worse than a dreamless sleep. Whoever has led a worthwhile and happy life has no reason to dread it. The only thing worth fearing is a life of pain and suffering, or the regret of not knowing that you left important things undone. And by exiting life on our own terms, we can ensure that we avoid both these fates.

Voluntarily laying down your own life is the ultimate choice of a free individual, the ultimate affirmation that our lives are our own and we may direct them as we wish. However, in the U.K. (and in most of the U.S.), assisted suicide is still illegal – a regrettably irrational view, supported in large part by religious medievalists who want to dictate to other people how to lead their lives. It’s not a wholly unreasonable fear that people may be coerced or pressured into ending their own lives, but that is a possibility that’s fairly easy to guard against. And the alternative – people forced to live out their last days in pain and misery, robbed of dignity, robbed of autonomy and freedom – is, I think, far worse by any rational accounting. Giving people the option to end their lives painlessly, if and when they choose to, is the most powerful proof that a society values human life as meaningful and treats it with respect.

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