He spent his life conducting world-renowned orchestras, but was almost blind and growing deaf - the music he loved increasingly out of reach. His wife of 54 years had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So Edward and Joan Downes decided to die together.
Downes - Sir Edward since he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
in 1991 - and his wife ended their lives last week at a Zurich
clinic run by the assisted suicide group Dignitas. They drank a
small amount of clear liquid and died hand-in-hand, their two adult
children by their side. He was 85 and she was 74.
The deaths were a poignant coda to Edward Downes' illustrious
musical career, and have reignited a debate in Britain about
whether people should be able to help ailing loved ones end their
The couple's children said Tuesday that they died "peacefully
and under circumstances of their own choosing" on Friday.
"After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own
lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health
problems," said a statement from the couple's son and daughter,
Caractacus and Boudicca.
"They wanted to be next to each other when they died,"
Caractacus Downes told London's Evening Standard newspaper. "They
held hands across the beds.
"It is a very civilized way to be able to end your life," he added.
Downes' manager Jonathan Groves said the couple were inseparable
and would have reached the decision together.
"Sir Edward would have survived her death, but he decided he
didn't want to. He didn't want to go on living without her,"
One of Britain's most renowned conductors, Downes had a long and
eminent career, which included years as head of the BBC
Philharmonic and a five-decade association with the Royal Opera
In recent years he had become almost blind and nearly deaf,
increasingly relying on his wife for support.
Joan, a former ballet dancer, choreographer and television
producer, had devoted years to working as his assistant, but she
was recently diagnosed with cancer of the liver and pancreas, and
given only weeks to live.
Groves said he was shocked by the couple's deaths but called
their decision "typically brave and courageous."
The double suicide is the latest in a series of high-profile
cases that have spurred calls for a legal change in Britain, where
assisted suicide and euthanasia are banned.
Under British law, assisting a suicide is punishable by up to 14
years in prison. But courts have become reluctant in recent years
to convict people. No relative or friend of any of the Britons who
have died in Dignitas clinics has been prosecuted.
The Metropolitan Police force said it had been notified of the
deaths, and was investigating. Charges are unlikely.
Despite evidence of changing attitudes, parliamentary efforts to
change the rules have all been defeated - most recently last week,
when Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords, voted down an
amendment that would have relaxed the prohibition on assisted
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of campaign group Dignity in
Dying, said the couple's deaths showed the need to regulate
"This problem is clearly not going to go away," she said.
"People should be able to make such decisions for themselves,
but safeguards are the key," she said.
Peter Saunders, of the anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing,
argued that loosening the law could "put vulnerable people, many
of whom already think they are a financial or emotional burden to
relatives, carers and the state, under pressure to end their lives
through a change in the law."
More than 100 Britons have died in Swiss clinics run by Dignitas
since the organization was established in 1998. The organization
takes advantage of the country's liberal laws on assisted suicide,
which suggest that a person can be prosecuted only if they are
acting out of self interest.
Roughly 100 foreigners - most of them terminally ill - come to
Switzerland each year to end their lives. Some are healthy except
for a disability or severe mental disorder. Typically they go to a
room run by Dignitas, which provides them with a lethal drink of
barbiturates. In five minutes they fall asleep - and never wake up.
Other countries, including the Netherlands and Belgium, and the
states of Oregon and Washington in the United States, allow the
incurably sick to obtain help from a doctor to hasten their death.
Only Switzerland, in a law dating back to 1942, permits
foreigners to come and kill themselves. Other organizations provide
such services for Swiss residents, but Dignitas is the main
organization for foreigners.
Critics accuse Dignitas of promoting "suicide tourism."
Dignitas charges 10,000 Swiss francs ($9,200) for its services,
which include taking care of legal formalities and arranging
consultations with a doctor willing to prescribe the barbiturates.
Edward Downes is one of the most prominent Britons to have
traveled to Switzerland because of its open attitude toward the
He was born in 1924 in Birmingham in central England. He studied
at Birmingham University, the Royal College of Music and under
German conductor Hermann Scherchen.
In 1952, he joined London's Royal Opera House as a junior
staffer - his first job was prompting soprano Maria Callas. He made
his debut as a conductor with the company the following year and
went on to become associate music director. Throughout his life he
retained close ties to the Royal Opera, conducting almost 1,000
performances of 49 different operas there over more than 50 years.
He also had a decades-long association with the BBC Philharmonic
Orchestra, where he became principal conductor and later conductor
emeritus. In the 1970s, he became music director of the Australian
Opera, conducting the first performance at the iconic Sydney Opera
House in 1973.
Edward and Joan Downes are survived by their children and
grandchildren. The family said the couple had no religious beliefs,
and there would be no funeral.
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