Sir Edward Downes was a British conductor; his wife, Lady Joan, was a former ballerina, choreographer and TV producer. They were educated and prominent—but last week they chose to end their lives, hand in hand, via assisted suicide at a Zurich clinic. They left no explanation; what’s known is that, at 85, Sir Edward was almost blind and increasingly deaf; Lady Joan, at 74, may have received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Their adult children issued a statement: "After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems. They died peacefully, and under circumstances of their own choosing…." Since the double death, a firestorm of criticism has raged and most of it is very reasonable. But at the center of it all are a husband and wife—and what draws us to them may not be reasonable but it’s real.
Ethicists worry that stories like this could make it fashionable to decide to die alongside one’s life partner, or that one spouse could pressure another to make that choice. (Women are seen as particularly susceptible to this bullying, although historically, wives haven’t exactly raced to throw themselves on the suttee.) One professor noted that while some see a beautiful love story in the Downses, others would describe their marriage as "a pathologically enmeshed relationship." Well, maybe—but that could also arguably describe Romeo and Juliet, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Eleanor and Franklin, Jackie and JFK, and let’s not even start on Elizabeth Taylor and her Middle Period husbands. Of these, only Juliet chose to end her own life rather than go it alone, but all these couples were passionate, extreme and, admit it, much more fascinating than sensible, healthy relationships.
Another critic objected that the Downes story "makes death a lifestyle choice." No, it’s a deathstyle choice, and most of us will not, in fact, ever make it. (Even Heathcliff didn’t, for all his carrying on.) But lying down together, willingly, after half a century of marriage, and linking hands one last time—say it’s sad, even say it’s crazy, but don’t ever say it’s not romantic.