Why life is too precious just to be shuffled off so dispassionately
It seems to be the fashion in Britain these days to announce that you are going to end your life when you get to a certain age (or to a certain degree of infirmity). The television duo Richard and Judy breezily announced the other day that they'd be topping themselves if life became too unbearable for either of them.
Judy Finnigan, who is 65, said of extreme old age: "Stuff it all. We've made ourselves give each other a pledge along those lines."
Her husband, Richard Madeley, a mere 57, said he would certainly give his spouse "a little push over the edge": and for himself, he hoped he might be left alone "in a locked room, (with) a bottle of whiskey and a revolver".
This was the course of action recommended to officers in the Prussian army, if they were found to be dishonoured – cheating at cards, for example, or the disclosure of an outrageously gay affair. A melodramatic way to go, at any rate.
Cilla Black has indicated – though more vaguely – something similar. She decided some years ago that 75 was quite long enough to dwell on this Earth, and when she gets to that age, she would like to depart. She is almost 71 now, and in perfectly sprightly health.
Her three sons have told her it's awfully selfish of her to say all this – they don't want her to disappear at 75, they want her to see her grandchildren grow up. But Cilla sounds adamant. She doesn't want to be a "burden".
Suicide is not a funny subject – it certainly isn't for those who have been bereaved by it – but more and more, people are willing to be open about "assisted suicide" – that is, getting someone near to you to end your life when it seems intolerable.
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God knows there are cases where a life does seem unbearable to those living it: Marie Fleming's case was well-made in the best-selling book that chartered her incurable illness.
There have always been "mercy killings", and there are surely times when they seem justified. Stories from the First World War have disclosed agonising cases of men dying very slowly and in the most terrible agony in the mud of Flanders. A quick shot to the head would end it all in a matter of seconds.
In these circumstances, even the most committed Christians did not usually report the episode to the authorities. A blind eye might be turned and a compassionate phrase invoked: "Commended to the mercy of God."
But the Richard-and-Judy approach – and Cilla's, too, maybe – indicates a new, almost uber-cool attitude to assisted suicide and to taking your own life at a given time, not just because of suffering, but even before such suffering occurs.
I think it is partly a generational thing. For the generations who came to adulthood in the 1960s and '70s, "lifestyle choice" was a catchphrase and "empowerment" meant "personal control" over your life. Now they want "choice" and "control" over the manner of their deaths.
This is also a generation which hasn't had much experience of death until they reach the pensionable years.
People born in the 1920s and 1930s were more aware of death. From childhood, people died of tuberculosis, diphtheria, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, scarlet fever and meningitis. Medical progress eradicated many of these diseases, and the baby-boom generation, born after 1945, grew to middle age and beyond without ever seeing a dead body, or witnessing a deathbed.
Martin Amis has written about this in his novel The Information, about how utterly astonished his generation was to discover that they, too, must die, so they seek control over it.
Richard Madeley has admitted that it was the shock of his mother's death in April which brought on all these thoughts about the bottle of whiskey and the revolver. His elderly mother had lung cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and yet, her death surprised him.
A strangely naive comment, and yet an understandable one, because however prepared you are for a death, it still comes as a shock.
But all these confident statements from people who say they're going to end their own lives, either before they become a "burden", or when they anticipate the onset of suffering, do not persuade me that everything will go exactly as "planned". Life, for all its problems and difficulties, is precious, and it just isn't that easy to take that step of deliberately extinguishing it.
I have known individuals who said they didn't want to be a burden, or they didn't wish to live with infirmities, and yet, when push came to shove, they didn't want to go before they had to.
The French writer Colette once said that "the will to live" is encoded into every cell in our body, and maybe that is something that is felt at a deeper level than mere talk.
We shall see if Cilla will take measures to make her exit at 75, and if Richard and Judy maintain their pact.
Assisted suicide is not legal in either Britain or Ireland, though people do go to Switzerland for that reason. Sir Chris Woodhead, the former inspector of Schools in Britain, who has motor neurone disease, has said several times that he plans to do so. Yet, when he speaks, you can tell he is loath to finalise those plans.
I admire him more for holding on in the face of his afflictions than for booking that Zurich flight.