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Conductor's Assisted Suicide

Matt Schudel

In Friday's paper, we have a wire obituary of British conductor Edward Downes, who died this week at the age of 85. He was a conductor of modest renown but his obituary has become a huge story in England because of the manner in which he died.

Downes and his wife, a former ballet dancer, died together -- holding hands, apparently -- at an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. Assisted suicide is illegal in Britain, and the dual deaths of Downes and his wife, Joan, have renewed a sometimes heated debate about the issue.

The obituary in the Guardian directly addresses the issue, and columnist Alexander Chancellor draws parallels between the suicides and the dramatic deaths (and occasional suicides) in opera, while lamenting the "creepy" circumstances in which the Downeses died.

For better of worse, much of the British coverage -- including articles in the Telegraph, Independent and Daily Mail -- has dwelled at least as much on how Downes died as on what he accomplished when he was alive. The New York Times story -- it's not an obituary in the standard sense -- is almost entirely about the joint suicide.

The whole question is morally complex, certainly, but it raises particular concerns for obituary writers and editors. Should we include more information about the manner of death, especially when it is part of a larger public debate, or should we focus on the life itself? My own feeling is that death is the occasion for an obituary but is by no means its primary subject. An obituary should be about life. Others may differ.

If you have any thoughts about assisted suicide and whether such public issues should be part of obituaries, please let us know with a comment below.

By Matt Schudel  |  July 17, 2009; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel , Musicians  
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Having watched my mother die slowly and agonizingly of colon cancer, I believe that a carefully managed protocol for assisted suicide should be an option for those who not only suffer needlessly from their ailments, but additionally might suffer the indignities of our broken health care system.

Posted by: phburris | July 17, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

...that said, I agree that obituaries are about the triumphs of living, and I have enjoy (and referred others to) this blog because it celebrates the good people do, and ensures they are not interred with the bones, to paraphrase Marc Antony.

Posted by: phburris | July 17, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

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