Dignity or Sati? Death as a Lifestyle Choice

by Mary Jackson (June 2010)

“If you, my beloved, have died…all the leaves will fall on my breast…it will rain on my soul night and day…the snow will burn my heart…I shall walk with cold and fire and death and snow…my feet will want to march to where you sleep…but I shall go on living…”

(From “The Dead Woman” by Pablo Neruda)


A fine sentiment, but what a struggle. How tempting – and how romantic – to join your beloved in easeful death. And you can’t get more easeful than a Swiss clinic.

Last year, British conductor Sir Edward Downes, 85, travelled to Dignitas, the Zurich-based suicide clinic with his wife Joan, 74, who had terminal cancer. Sir Edward was frail, with failing eyesight and hearing, but not terminally ill. After fifty-four years of marriage, the couple drank a fatal draft of poison and “fell asleep” for the last time, holding hands across the bed. Their son described his parents’ last moments as “very calm and civilised”. Who could object to that? Surely, in a civilised society, everyone has the right to a calm death. Dignitas has found a gap in the market, and countries like the UK, where assisted suicide is illegal, should get with the programme.

The founder of Dignitas, human rights lawyer Ludwig Minelli, sees nothing wrong with making his product available to as many people as possible. His motives are noble: death is a “human right without conditions” and a “marvellous possibility”. Besides, if people stick around needlessly, they cost the taxpayer money. Jenny McCartney in The Telegraph:

[He] offered an economic argument for the efficiency of his clinic. “For every 50 suicide attempts we have one suicide and the others are failing, with huge costs to the National Health Service”.

Forty-nine people still alive because they didn’t use a professional? That is failure indeed. Mr Minelli has missed a marketing trick here. Just think of all the money that is wasted at The Samaritans on training staff to talk people out of suicide. They could be replaced by a recorded message saying: “Suicidal? Don’t botch it. Phone Dignitas – stone dead or your money back. Two for one offer – spouse goes free.” And unlike most products, there will be no need for an after-sales service.

It’s not like one of those hospices either. Minelli’s Deathotel gives you the holiday to end all holidays – at £6,200 a pop, it will take your breath away. From the London Evening Standard:

In a typewritten letter, Dignitas founder Ludwig Minelli, a former human rights lawyer, describes the suicide clinic as “light-flooded” and “friendly” with a “lovely garden”.

The letter goes on: “Besides lies a tiny lake; a little waterfall dabbles, a rill purls flowing to the lake, where goldfishes are swimming. In the background, a garden pavilion and a sunshade.” The letter also urges members to increase their membership fees and “support our struggle” through donations.

So this is the luxury death experience, as opposed to the “no rills” exit model? And how, exactly, is Minelli “struggling”?

Dignitas needs funds for its campaign to stop authorities prohibiting organised assisted suicide. The act is legal in Switzerland but the government is considering tightening laws.

Mr Minelli reassures members that the new building enables “assisted voluntary death proceedings can take place without causing any problems whatsoever. In this respect, you will find some pictures on the reverse side of this information. This certainly is an agreeable information!”

Never mind the dabbly waterfalls and purley rills, why not go the whole hog and have a mock-up of the River Styx, complete with a Caring Charon to ferry you into the afterlife? A mere £1,000 extra for an enhanced end-of-life proceeding is certainly an agreeable information.

Perhaps I am too dismissive. Nearly two years ago 23-year-old Daniel James, almost completely paralysed in a rugby accident, asked his parents to take him to Dignitas to end a life in which, his mother said, “He couldn’t walk, had no hand function, but constant pain in all of his fingers. He was incontinent, suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body and needed 24-hour care…Dan had tried to commit suicide three times but this was unsuccessful due to his disability. Other than to starve himself, to travel to Switzerland was his only option.” 

It is difficult not to feel compassion for Daniel James, as did the British authorities when they decided not to prosecute his parents. But Dignitas goes beyond this: as a “human right”, and a “marvellous possibility”, suicide is a lifestyle – or deathstyle – choice. Jenny  McCartney brings out the contradiction, and naked self-interest, in Minelli’s position:

 On the one hand mental illness is deemed to be an unbearable source of distress that justifies an exit strategy; on the other, such people are held to be of sufficiently ordered mind to consent to assisted dying. You might say that Mr Minelli can’t have it both ways, but then he doesn’t appear to mind much which way he has it.


In seeing death as a right, Minelli is not alone. Blogging as Bradlaugh, John Derbyshire wrote:


I have never been very clear about the religious objections to suicide and assisted suicide.   The only time I tackled a religious colleague about it he launched into a “slippery slope” argument.   Well, I suppose some slopes are slippery, and some aren’t. I can’t see this one as being particularly slippery.


I disagree – there has been some slippage already. From helping a terminally ill person kill himself before he becomes incapacitated, Dignitas has slithered down to dispatching the frail and sad. Joan Downes was terminally ill, but Edward Downes was not: he just couldn’t face life as a widower. Suppose an 85-year-old husband was terminally ill, and his 74-year-old wife healthy. Suppose the wife was 54, not 74, but felt she couldn’t live without him. Suppose the husband told her that her life was worthless without him – or perhaps she felt this without being told. Where would Dignitas draw the line?

The last case, of a wife feeling her life is worthless without her husband, is not hypothetical; Jacob M. Appel reported in The Huffington Post on George and Betty Coumbias of Vancouver:


George Coumbias suffers from debilitating and potentially deadly cardiac disease. His wife, Betty, also in her early seventies, is in good health. However, according to human rights attorney Ludwig Minelli, the director of the Swiss suicide-assistance organization, Dignitas, Mrs. Coumbias wishes to die alongside her husband during simultaneous suicides. She explained her motives in a 2007 documentary film, The Suicide Tourist: “From the day we got married, [my husband] was all my life….I love my two daughters, but I love him more, and I don’t think I can face life without him, and since we read about Dignitas, we felt, What would be better than to die together, you know, to die in each other’s arms?”


What would be better? To live would be better. To live and grieve. Who better to mourn a husband than a wife of fifty years, and who better to mourn a wife than a husband? Grief is not a terminal illness; it is part of life and, as the old cliché goes, the price you pay for love. It is not so something to be “cured” by a death clinic. We are all terminally ill – the word is “mortal” – and we all suffer loss. Still, for a mere €4,000, Dignitas can end your suffering, and help you slip away without too much fuss and bother. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun – come to Zurich and have done.

Appel approves:


A consistent plea to die in the arms of a beloved spouse, expressed over a period of two years, is not a wish that a set of officious Platonic guardians should second-guess.


Those “officious Platonic guardians” at The Samaritans, or an “officious” brother, sister or child might, on the contrary, consider that a healthy woman who chose to end her life in a Swiss clinic was not in her right mind; that it was sordid rather than romantic. They might beg her to reconsider, but this would impair the efficiency of the Dignitas operation, and it might fail to meet its “Key Performance Indicators”.

Suicide is not a crime. If the healthy Mrs Coumbias is determined to kill herself when many terminally sick people would dearly love to live; if she is so indifferent to the suffering that it will cause to her loved ones, she can, literally, go and jump off a cliff. But no doctor worthy of the name should give her poison.

Sati, the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre was stamped out by the British in India. Voluntary or not – and sometimes it was – the practice was thought repugnant in a generally crueller age. For all its sanctimony, and for all its talk of “human rights”, Dignitas brings back Sati, neatly and discreetly.


This article is based on a piece that first appeared in Pajamas Media in July 2009.

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.  


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