How to die

John Sutherland

  • Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying by Derek Humphry
    Hemlock Society, 192 pp, $16.95, April 1991, ISBN 0 9606030 3 4

Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther is reported to have inspired an epidemic of imitative suicides. It is likely that many of the victims also imitated the incompetence of Werther’s self-slaughter – an act worthier of the Three Stooges than of a latter-day Hamlet. The clock strikes twelve and with the forlorn cry ‘Lotte! Lotte! Farewell! Farewell!’ Goethe’s romantic hero shoots himself in the head. Six hours later a servant comes in to find his master in a pool of blood, but still breathing. It is not until noon that Werther dies. His mistake was to shoot himself with a low-velocity pistol ‘above the right eye’. The ball’s impact was absorbed by the boniest part of the skull, an area which human evolution has specifically fortified against missile attack. Had Werther devoted his last hours to reading anatomy rather than Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, he would have known to shoot himself through the right eye, or up through his open mouth. Literature might have been poorer by an operatic gesture but a lot of young men would have been spared needless agony. An equally famous suicide in literature is similarly botched. Emma Bovary steals arsenic from the pharmacist’s locked cupboard with the vague sense that as a rat poison it must be fast and certain. The result is a day-long agony during which she vomits blood and screams curses at the poison she has injudiciously taken. Emma would have done better with a pint of laudanum – as easily come by in a 19th-century chemist shop as milk.

One of the best-known ‘assisted suicides’ in literature – of Mrs Morel in Sons and Lovers – is rather more efficiently handled but is still far from expert. Paul overdoses his mother’s milk with her whole prescription of morphia tablets, which he and his sister have pulverised. Mrs Morel evidently guesses why her night-time drink is so bitter, but drinks nevertheless. This is in line with the drill laid down in Final Exit, although Humphry recommends sweetening the lethal potion with extra sugar, or honey. But Paul then has to stand a painful watch for 13 hours, while his mother loudly snores and grunts her way into oblivion. Consultation of Final Exit would have enlightened him on two points. First, that invalids build up tolerance to their medicines; he should either have weaned her from the drug for a few days or have found some way of enhancing its effect. Secondly, he should have taken steps to shorten his mother’s death-throes. Humphry suggests the plastic bag over the head to suffocate the unconscious ‘loved one’.

One can, of course, find wholly efficacious recipes for suicide in fiction. There is a very practical description of how to exit with razor and warm bath in Huxley’s ‘Sir Hercules’. Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is instructive on how to simulate death by angina and cheat the insurance companies into the bargain. The first chapter of A.N. Wilson’s The Healing Art outlines a very useful-looking technique which only requires a motor-car, a length of rubber hose, a quiet country lane and a bottle of scotch. But in general, Derek Humphry’s warning is a sound one: ‘Beware of taking ideas about death and dying from novels and films.’ But where else are they to be found? ‘Ideas’ about suicide are strongly discouraged by the British authorities. They decree a protective ignorance on the subject – even to the extent of threatening prosecution against high-minded publications like Exit’s 1981 guide to self-deliverance. It will be a brave (one might say suicidal) British bookseller who stocks Final Exit, although it has not yet, as far as I know, been formally banned.

Britain’s policy of rigorously suppressing public information about the practicalities of suicide is designed to persuade the population that easy ways to die are as hard to come by as asps. All suicide, we are to believe, is painful, messy, undignified and inconvenient. Or as Dorothy Parker (an inveterate botcher of suicide) put it:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Britain’s policy of benign censorship keeps the annual rate of (officially recorded) suicides down to 500 – infinitely fewer than are killed by smoking, many fewer than are killed in road accidents, and, in 1990, fewer than are killed by murder. Most people, it seems, decide they might as well live. Against this, those Britons who decide to die by their own hand often suffer hideously and, Humphry argues, unnecessarily. There are easy ways to die. What is difficult is finding out about them.

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