The other night Frontline aired a disturbing documentary titled The Suicide Tourist that follows the journey of Craig Ewert to Zurich, Switzerland where he seeks out the services of a company that is in the business of assisting in “death with dignity.” There is little in the documentary that is new in the way of argument for or against Ewert’s actions. What is new is the unprecedented access to the intimate details of the story all the way up to the life-ending act that is unflinchingly captured on film.
As a piece of journalism it does do its best to remain objective, though it is easy to believe that the filmmakers were sympathetic to the autonomy expressed in Ewert’s assertion that he has “the right to die.” Still, it is free from excessive narration and allows the viewer to observe and make his or her own judgments.
I began by saying that the film is disturbing, and it is. Much of the discussion at the PBS website, to my great surprise, has commented on how “courageous” and “brave” Ewert was in making his decision, and how his death was beautifully portrayed. I had the opposite reaction. I thought Ewert came across as a pathetic figure, not because of his suffering or the fact that was deteriorating from ALS, but because he was so utterly hopeless. He had nothing to look forward to except “death or suffering and death” as he despondently remarks. His hope to no longer exist simply does not add up to “courage” or “bravery” in the usual sense, and if one thinks that living well entails dying well I am not sure this is an example anyone would want to look to for guidance.
However, the film has its moments of mercy. Craig and his wife Mary still share laughter, enjoy walks in the park, smelling fresh air, conversing, and have tender moments of physical affection. Throughout the film we are told that Craig felt as though his life was lost when he received his diagnosis. We are left with impression that the road to Zurich is chosen as if it were the next logical step like a drive to a morgue after life expires. But of course, that is false. Shortly after Craig’s death Mary reflects on the fact that though they both believed his life ended when they learned of his terminal condition, she still very much enjoyed his life up until his final moments. The contradiction within this arbitrary blurring of life and death is one that rests uneasily in her words as she fights back tears. She assures us she has already grieved his death (at diagnosis), but quietly manifests a grief that has already begun.
In the end, I am left cold feeling despair over how the story comes to a conclusion. Truly, there is nothing to laugh at when considering living with a degenerative disease like ALS. In a sense, Craig does bravely go through with his act while he is evidently frightened of death. He is not sure what awaits him. He believes that there will be nothing, but he does not know for sure. He hopes that it will be peaceful… but perhaps not.
The issue of assisted suicide is a hot legal issue, but more profoundly it represents the tip of the iceberg of serious worldview issues. Those that are religious and who hold a hope out for the resurrection are less likely to view life and death the way Craig does. Craig’s story is one of those dramas caused by a worldview that calls for the end of life if it is deemed unworthy of life, instead of one that truly redeems a person from suffering by the power of God to raise the dead. And in that there is not much else but the hope to die well.