Passion of the Consumer

When I read about the recent deaths of Edward and Joan Downes, I remembered a few lines from Romeo and Juliet. Before Romeo drinks his “dram of poison” to join Juliet, he says:

         O, here
   Will I set up my everlasting rest
   And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
   From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
   Arms, take your last embrace! And, lips, O you
   The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
   A dateless bargain to engrossing death!

Edward, a knighted, 85-year-old British music conductor, had serious health problems and was almost blind and deaf. Joan, a 74-year-old former dancer, choreographer and TV producer, had cancer.

Rather than suffer under the “yoke of inauspicious stars” or perish at the whim of their increasingly decrepit, “world-wearied flesh,” the Downes’ chose to pass on together with shared grace, dignity and courage. Unfortunately, they had to travel to Switzerland to do it.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia are banned in Great Britain as they are in most places here in the United States. The healthy majority generally believes it knows what’s best for the rest, and the chorus of misery that emanates from many of the terminally ill and the grotesquely suffering ultimately gets drowned out by a din of Christian rhetoric and ludicrous moral posturing.

In Romeo and Juliet, the abrupt, hardly weighed suicides of the protagonists are considered romantic. Almost 500 years later, the peaceful, deliberate passing of the Downes–a couple that had been together 54 years–is frowned on by many as selfish, immoral and damning.

Some say it’s a direct violation of God’s law. Others quote Corinthians 6:19, 20 (KJV): “Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own.” They believe God has proprietary rights and we mortal chattel dare not question His plans, even after His arguably having been asleep at the wheel for the last couple of millennia.

I couldn’t disagree with them more. Their stance suggests that terminally ill folks should voluntarily play Job, regardless of the pain and anguish that accompanies these often horrendous and hopeless deaths.

I think what God allowed to happen to Job was a sin and worse than a sin. The Book of Job reads like a bet between two sadistic guards at a Nazi concentration camp. If two human beings of sound mind choose to die quietly, bravely, and determine their time, their own end, to alleviate their sufferings or agony or induce their own demise before they’ve lost all semblance of their lives or themselves–if they decide they’ve played Job long enough, how can we fault them for cheating their torturers and how can any good god punish them for refusing to fulfill the wager?

Religion is not all that demands this abridgement of free will, this prohibition of peaceful oblivion. America used to be at the forefront of compassionate ideas. Now, we lag behind, hobbled by short-sighted conservatism and wide-eyed profit-mongers. The powers that be have no problem with us killing ourselves slowly with cigarettes or alcohol or their unnecessary drugs or the synthetic poisons they peddle or indirectly place in our food, air and water supplies. Each and every one of us is a captive consumer and even after we can no longer eat, drink or defecate their poisons on our own and we’ve forgotten who we are or were, they can still make money off us rotting away under hospice care or in a nursing home.

Who are we to take matters in our own hands? Who are we circumvent the burgeoning assisted “living” industry?

I’d like to think we’re human beings. I’d like to think we would be treated humanely. Unfortunately, only the states of Oregon and Washington have “Death with Dignity” laws in place.

Here in Texas, regardless of how identity-erasing, volition-robbing, life-transmogrifying, excruciating, needless or pointless a dying person’s wasting away may be, he or she is expected to grin and bear it.

What we want doesn’t matter. Even after there’s hardly anything left of us, they still place the cross, the yoke and the burden on our shoulders. It’s a state-sanctioned martyrdom for God and Capitalism.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo, Texas and the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious (History Press, 2013). He can be reached at: erbillsthinks@gmail.com. Read other articles by E.R..

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  1. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on August 5th, 2009 at 10:25am #

    to christians killing a dead person sleeping is a crime; their soldiers killing of children in gaza or afgh’n is a duty.
    go figure! tnx