Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ars moriendi

Renowned British symphony conductor Sir Edward Downes (1924-2009) and his wife Lady Joan ended their lives on July 10th at Dignitas, a Swiss clinic specializing in assisted suicide. Devoted to each other but in deteriorating health, he was nearly blind - conducting entirely from memory and unable to work on new scores - and she had terminal cancer. Their friends said that euthanasia was, for them, a natural finale. A statement by their son and daughter read, "It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our parents....They died peacefully and under circumstances of their own choosing....They both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives both professionally and personally." The mutual death of the Downes would be considered a good death, appropriate to their circumstances as nonreligious, having lived long and rewarding lives, and struggling with serious health problems. Others may have chosen the more passive route of hospice care, which also has the goal of providing comfort and support to the dying. The concept of making a good death arose in the Middle Ages, when a body of Christian literature - Ars Moriendi [Art of Dying] - offered instruction to the faithful in making their peace with God as the angels and demons struggled over their souls. The theme was illustrated (see above) by artists such as the unknown German engraver Master E.S. (c. 1420-c. 1468) and Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1453-1516).

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