Till death do us part: Sir Edward and his wife Joan travelled to the controversial assisted-suicide clinic to end their lives. Photo: Daily Mail
Elderly couple die hand-in-handThe son of conductor Sir Edward Downes on Tuesday told how he and his sister wept as they watched their parents die hand-in-hand at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.
Sir Edward, 85, and his 74-year-old wife Joan had travelled to the controversial assisted-suicide clinic to end their lives after Joan was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver and pancreas.
"They drank a small quantity of clear liquid and then lay down on the beds next to each other. Within a couple of minutes they were asleep and died within 10 minutes," said Caractacus Downes.
"They wanted to be next to each other when they died. They held hands across the beds."
'They drank a small quantity of clear liquid'
Caractacus, 41, an IT worker and musician, and his sister Boudicca, 39, who works for the UN, flew with their parents to Zurich last Tuesday.
On Friday they sat in the room watching their parents die, tears pouring down their cheeks. "It is a very civilised way to be able to end your life," said Caractacus, "and I don't understand why the legal position in Britain doesn't allow it."
The couple's decision to take their own lives will reignite the debate over the ethics of assisted suicide and the controversial clinic.
Sir Edward, who was principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 1980 to 1991, had suffered with near blindness for the past 15 years and was going deaf.
Caractacus and Boudicca returned to London at the weekend, phoning police on Monday to tell them what they had done before releasing a press statement on Tuesday. They were due to be questioned by officers from the Greenwich CID yesterday. A police source said: "This is something we have to do as a matter of routine."
'Dad had felt he was physically winding down'
Caractacus said his parents' final moments were "very calm and very simple".
He added: "We wanted to be with them. To start with, my mother didn't want us to go, but that was early on. Dignitas encouraged us to go. and my parents were very relieved we were there.
"There is a detailed process Dignitas requires you to go through to make sure you are aware of what you are doing and you are sure that is what you want to do."
A specialist had given Joan weeks to live. "The prognosis was fairly bleak. It was between some number of weeks and months," said Caractacus.
He added: "Dad had felt he was physically winding down. There were all sorts of things he wanted to do but couldn't.
"For the last couple of years he had been doing a degree in Russian. He wanted to do something to keep his brain ticking over, but the physical demands of being able to read Russian texts he was having great difficulty with. It was frustration upon frustration for him."
The family researched the legal position and took advice from a family friend, a retired lawyer.
"We looked up on the internet what was going on. But it would not make any difference. Even if they arrest us and send us to prison it would have made no difference because it is what our parents wanted," said Caractacus.
A statement released by Caractacus and Boudicca said the couple had died on July 10 "under circumstances of their own choosing".
It stated: "After 54 happy years together they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems. Our mother, who was 74, started her career as a ballet dancer and subsequently worked as a choreographer and TV producer before dedicating the last years of her life to working as our father's personal assistant.
"They both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives, both professionally and personally. Our parents had no religious beliefs and there will be no funeral."
Sir Edward had a long and distinguished career, working with both the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Opera House.
His manager, a Mr Groves, who had known the conductor for 35 years, said the couple's decision to end their lives was "typically brave and courageous".
"They were absolutely devoted to each other."
Throughout his stellar career Sir Edward was honoured by four music colleges and five universities as well as receiving the Laurence Olivier, Evening Standard, Critics Circle and Royal Philharmonic Society awards.
He received a CBE in 1986 and was knighted in 1991. Sir Edward's eyesight "almost collapsed" when he was 71.
Last week, the House of Lords rejected a bid to allow relatives to help terminally ill people travel abroad to die, following an impassioned plea by a severely disabled peer.
There is massive public support for a change in the law to allow assisted dying, with polls regularly showing more than 80 percent of the British public want it made legal.
At Dignitas, clients pay ?6 000 (about R80 000) to give themselves a lethal dose of barbiturate. The drug induces a deep sleep within minutes of drinking it, leading to a peaceful and painless death, according to the clinic.
Patients are left alone in a flat as they do so, but their death is filmed and the footage handed to a coroner to prove there was no coercion.
The centre, founded by human rights lawyer Ludwig Minelli as a non-profit organisation, operates in a legal limbo.
In Switzerland, those who assist a suicide need only a psychiatrist's report which says that the subject has the mental capacity to decide whether he or she wishes to die. There are no further legal sanctions, and Swisslaw remains vague, drawing no clear distinction between suicides of the terminally ill and others.
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