A Duty to Die
Why suicide is sometimes a reasonable and compassionate option for the elderly.
Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
March 10, 1985
By Art Carey
ON THE DAY THAT G. Whittier Spaulding and his beloved wife, Beth, decided to kill themselves, "Whit" Spaulding got up early, made a soft-boiled egg, whole wheat toast and a cup of cocoa for his wife, washed all the dishes, took out the garbage, put the Sunday papers in the trash, made the beds, straightened the living room and fastened the chain locks on all the doors. Then, on his small walnut desk in the bedroom he used as his study, he left a note for his two daughters, along with a copy of his will, other important papers and the keys to the car, the house and his safe-deposit box.
Such fastidious attention to detail was typical of Whit Spaulding, a Yankee of sturdy early American stock and a descendant of poet John Greenleaf Whittier. It was a trait that had helped Whit, an MIT-trained electrical engineer, rise to the presidency of the Pennsylvania Water & Power Co. And it was a trait that had made him a valued member of the many organizations to which he contributed his time and energy.
Indeed, if anyone could be called a "pillar of the community," it was Whit Spaulding, an indefatigable "doer" whose obituary in the Allentown Morning Call was a remarkable testament to civic involvement. A quiet, reserved man, Whit was a steadfast worker, a skillful organizer and a patient problem-solver. He had warm, sensitive eyes, and he was an attentive listener who could make people feel, when they were talking to him, that nothing could be more fascinating. He was married to a vibrant, vivacious woman, the belle of an old Southern family - a painter, poet, gracious hostess and giver of parties that everybody enjoyed and remembered. Together, they were, as their daughter Judy put it, "busies" - a couple who lived life to the hilt, always traveling, always meeting new people, always participating in some worthy endeavor, always surrounded by legions of devoted friends - in Baltimore and Allentown, where they formerly lived; in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where they vacationed; and in Sarasota, Fla., where they retired.
In short, Beth and Whit Spaulding had come as close as any two people can to "mastering" life. And so it was hardly out of character that they would also try to master their own deaths, for wasn't death but the final act of life?
For more than a decade, Whit Spaulding had been exploring euthanasia (a word formed from two Greek words meaning "good death"). He had collected articles and read books on the subject. Eventually, he decided that it made good sense for old people who have lived full lives - and who are facing nothing but the prospect of a slow, painful, debilitating decline - to kill themselves. He had discussed it with his wife, and they agreed that it was a rational, even noble thing to do. On several occasions, he talked to his daughters about his intentions, and he wrote a long, thoughtful memo explaining his philosophy. In a way, his family was prepared, but not so prepared that when, on Nov. 28, 1982, he carried out his intentions, they weren't surprised and saddened.
On that day, early in the evening, neighbors who passed the Spauldings' tidy stucco retirement home in Sarasota noticed lights on in the living room. But by 11 p.m. the drapes had been drawn and the house was dark. By then, Beth and Whit Spaulding, both 83 and feeble from their infirmities, had walked into their garage, closed the door, turned on the engine of their metallic- blue Chrysler New Yorker and climbed into the back seat, holding hands.
FOR YEARS NOW, THE nation has been wringing its hands over an epidemic of teenage suicides. And well it should be, for it is a problem of momentous proportions. In the United States during the past 25 years, the suicide rate for those between the ages of 15 and 24 has risen by nearly 300 percent. But little attention has been paid to what has been happening to our mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers, many of whom are also choosing to shoot themselves, gas themselves and take overdoses of drugs. Sometimes, like the Spauldings, they are killing themselves together, seeking death the way they lived their lives - as a couple.
In the United States, a country obsessed with youth, old age seems the ultimate obscenity. Our national mythology includes visions of Grandpa dispensing sage counsel from his rocker or Grandma sewing quilts and baking pies, but those are just images from The Waltons or some saccharine television commercial designed to sell Pepsi, Kodak film or Hallmark greeting cards. Too often, the reality of old age is a weak, wizened widow with cloudy eyes, rotting teeth and aching joints, waiting anxiously in a small, dingy apartment for a phone call from her harried daughter or son halfway across the country. Or it is a once-vigorous family patriarch, his cancer-ridden body shriveled to a skeleton, lying in a hospital bed, connected against his will to tubes and machines that are keeping him alive only in the most literal sense of the word.
"We have shaped a society which is extremely harsh to live in when one is old," writes Dr. Robert N. Butler in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why Survive? Being Old in America. "The tragedy of old age is not the fact that each of us must grow old and die but that the process of doing so has been made unnecessarily and at times excruciatingly painful, humiliating, debilitating and isolating. "
Adds Landon Y. Jones, the author of Great Expectations: "It was not until the coming of the baby boom that we adopted the philosophy, if not the literal practice, of ancient Sardinians who pushed their elders off cliffs when they were no longer useful. We did not destroy the elderly but just ignored them. Instead of following the aged as guides to the future, we followed the young as guides to the future. Television has presented a particularly gloomy picture of old age, habitually portraying the aged as eccentric, stubborn, nonsexual, silly, and little worthy of respect. "
The elderly today are often dangling, withered leaves on family trees splintered by divorce. Their children and grandchildren often live thousands of miles away and are so busy pursuing careers and rearing children that they have little time for the old folks back home. At the same time, society's attitude toward suicide is changing. Polls show that more and more Americans favor euthanasia for the terminally ill. The Hemlock Society, a Los Angeles- based right-to-die group, has 10,000 members who believe in "self- deliverance" through "rational suicide. "
"Suicide used to be a crime, then a sin. Now it's a type of mental illness," says Dr. Marian Alessandroni, a University of Pennsylvania physician with a special interest in geriatric policy and the ethical issues of aging. "Suicide used to be in the realm of morals; now it's in the realm of medicine. "
THE HUMAN LIFE span is about 100 years. It has changed little over the ages, and it is unlikely to change significantly in the near future. Today, though, more people are approaching that natural biological limit, living into their 70s, 80s and 90s. Much of the credit belongs to modern medicine, which has extended human life expectancy from 49 years when the century began to about 74 years today.
But modern medicine has also opened a Pandora's box of sorts. By enabling thousands of the elderly to live longer through better hygiene and sophisticated technology, it has also condemned many to slow, painful deaths at the hands of wasting diseases that rob them of their dignity as well as their savings. Today, four out of five Americans die in hospitals, and the
average cost of dying is about $30,000. No less than 28 percent of the country's $75 billion yearly Medicare budget is used to maintain the elderly in their last year of life - most of the money during their last month.
"Suicide as an option for old people is becoming more and more popular
because more people are taking control of their own fate," says Dr. Vincent J. Cristofalo, director of the Center for the Study of Aging at the University of Pennsylvania. "Medical technology is such today that people can know that they're going to become very ill and that they're going to be in great pain. Because of this technology, we're not dealing, as we did 30 or 40 years ago, with a God's-will situation. We're dealing with illnesses with very predictable outcomes. "
"We've haven't had time to develop the ethical clarity to cope with our technological success," says the Rev. Vincent J. Genovesi, S.J., an associate professor of Christian ethics at St. Joseph's University. "In the past, people spoke of a culture gap. Today we have an ethics gap. " Warns A-J Levinson, executive director of Concern for Dying, a New York-based organization dedicated to protecting the rights of the terminally ill: ''Society is going to have to come to grips with this. "
In her latest movie, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, Katharine Hepburn portrays an elderly woman who joins with a murderer to kill aged people who want to die. "If my own mother had been desperately ill and attached to a lot of humiliating machines, I think I would have shot her," the 75-year-old actress said recently. "I think it's terribly tragic when people are so desperate that they want to take their lives, but everyone should have a right to decide for themselves whether to live or die. . . . We're terribly overpopulated, living in small apartments instead of the big houses where Grandma used to sit by the fire and watch the kids or the
baked potatoes or whatever. Now there's no room for her, and it's going to get worse. "
Last March, when Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm declared that the aged have "a duty to die and get out of the
way," he was lambasted for being callous toward the elderly. But in context, Lamm's remarks were not as intemperate as they may have seemed. "We are really approaching a time of almost technological immortality when the machines and the tubes and the special drugs and the heart pacemakers . . . force life on us," he also said. Those old people who reject such artificial measures, he continued, are like "leaves falling off a tree and forming humus for the other plants to grow up. "
To many of us, life is sacred and precious, something God gives and God alone should take away. But more and more old people are beginning to reject the notion that they must continue to live only to suffer. They are beginning to ask, "Why postpone the inevitable? " They are beginning to regard suicide not as a problem but as a solution. In short, more and more elderly couples, it appears, are doing as the Spauldings did: They are deciding to die together rather than live through the terrors and indignities of old age alone.
NO ONE KNOWS HOW many elderly couples take their own lives each year. The phenomenon is still relatively rare, and no one has been keeping count. While there are plenty of statistics on suicides by elderly individuals, the numbers are suspect, because many suicides are not reported as such. When an elderly person in ill health takes a drug overdose, the temptation is often strong to spare the survivors embarrassment by attributing the death to ''natural" causes. Nevertheless, many gerontologists believe that more old couples are killing themselves and that such suicides will increase.
"There's no question we're seeing more of them, and we're going to see more of them," says Levinson of Concern for Dying. "Old people do not want to pauperize themselves and their estates paying for unwanted long-term medical treatment. Their fear of hospitalization and mental and financial ruin is so great that they perceive suicide as the best way out. "
Although figures on suicide by elderly couples are unavailable, there are some statistics that at least suggest the dimensions of the problem. Those statistics, while faulty and incomplete, are dramatic and alarming:
* This year, at least 10,000 people over the age of 60 are expected to kill themselves, experts estimate.
* Those older than 65 make up about a tenth of the U.S. population but account for roughly a quarter of all suicides each year.
* In 1982, suicide was the 14th leading cause of death for people over 65.
* The suicide rate for older white males - who often can't cope with retirement and the attendant loss of status and power - is almost four times greater than the average rate for people in the United States as a whole.
* In 1982, the group of people with the highest suicide rate (20.3 suicides per 100,000 people) were those between the ages of 75 and 84. The group with the second highest suicide rate (17.6 per 100,000) were those older than 85. And the group with the third highest suicide rate (17.4 per 100,000) were those between 65 and 74. By contrast, the suicide rate for those between 15 and 24 was 12.1 per 100,000.
More eloquent than the figures, though, are the stories that appear in the newspapers with dismaying regularity.
Item: In June, William Jackson, 76, walked into a nursing home in Brooksville, Fla., and shot his wife, Eleanor, 71, before killing himself. "I think it was an act of love," said Harry Jackson, the couple's son. "My mother was terminally ill. They were very much in love, and he didn't want her to suffer more. "
Item: Last March, Maxwell Riffe, 78, a retired postal worker, shot his wife, Catherine, 79, in the head while she was sleeping in the bedroom of their two-story home in New Brighton, Pa. He then went downstairs and pulled the trigger on himself. Friends said Riffe was despondent because his health was failing and because he was no longer strong enough to tend to his wife, who had a pacemaker and was taking medication for various ailments.
Item: In October, Arthur Maurer, 71, a retired machinist, shot his wife, Dorothy, 80, and then turned his .32-caliber handgun on himself in the couple's apartment in Trevose, Bucks County. Dorothy Maurer died; her husband was hospitalized and survived. Friends said that Maurer had recently learned he had lung cancer and was worried that he could no longer care for his wife, who was partially paralyzed from a stroke. In the Maurers' apartment, police found a letter Maurer had written to The Inquirer six months before. "When it is time to go," he wrote, "it is wrong to prolong the event artificially. Wrong and also uncomfortable. And expensive. . . . I am 71; I have outlived many of my classmates and old friends and family, too. . . . An inanimate, insensate existence is revolting, inhumane. "
Item: One Saturday morning in September 1983, Wayne Drasher, 70, a retired newspaper pressman, drove to the convalescent home in Lancaster, Pa., where his wife, Ethel, was a resident, to take her home for a visit. Because of severe circulatory problems, Mrs. Drasher's legs had been amputated, and her husband had to remove her from the nursing home in a wheelchair.
The next morning, about 7:30, Lancaster police found the couple sitting together on the front seat of their Toyota, outside Drasher's apartment complex. The car's engine was running, and a plastic hose carried the exhaust through the car's rear window. Wayne and Ethel Drasher were holding hands. Both were dead.
In the car, police found a note directing them to a cassette tape in Drasher's apartment. "This is it," Drasher said on the tape. "Ethel and I have decided, from the time of our marriage some 50 years ago, that we would go together, since we have been together so long. "
Item: On the morning of Aug. 19, 1983, Julia Saunders, 81, a former Swarthmore resident whose poor health had forced her husband to place her in a nursing home, had her hair done one last time. Her husband, Cecil, 85, a retired Du Pont Co. employee, collected the mail and paused to chat with a neighbor in the mobile home park where the Saunderses lived in North Fort Myers, Fla. After lunch, the couple drove out into the country and parked. As cows grazed in the summer heat, Cecil Saunders shot his wife of 60 years in the heart and then fired the gun at himself.
On the floorboard of their Chevrolet, the Saunderses had placed typewritten funeral instructions, and over the seat, they had draped a shower curtain and wool blanket so their blood would not stain the car. Near the clothes they had laid out to be buried in, the couple left a note: "Dear children, this we know will be a terrible shock and embarrassment, but as we see it, it is one solution to the problem of growing old. We greatly appreciate your willingness to try to take care of us. After being married for 60 years, it only makes sense for us to leave this world together because we loved each other so much. "
IN RECENT YEARS, THE SUIcide rate for those older than 65 has actually declined slightly, but because the number of old people is growing, total suicides among the elderly are increasing. Each day in America, the ranks of the elderly swell by an average of 1,400, as 5,000 people pass 65 and 3,600 die. In 1900, there were about three million people in this country older than 65. Today, there are 26 million elderly Americans, and their number is growing twice as fast as the rest of the population.
By 2010, when the baby-boom generation approaches retirement age, one out of seven Americans will be over 65. One of every 40 Americans will be over 85 - double the current proportion. Twenty years later, in the year 2030, one out of five Americans will be over 65, and about one out of 33 - or nearly 9 million people - will be over 85. By then, so many people will be surviving into their 80s that many old people will themselves have a surviving parent. These trends are not confined to the United States. Observes Mary Rose Barrington, solicitor of England's Supreme Court of Judicature of England: ''The problem of three or four contemporaneous generations peopling a world that hitherto has had to support only two or three is with us here and now. "
HIS ANCESTORS landed in Jamestown, Va., in 1619, but by Aug. 26, 1899, when George Whittier Spaulding was born in Lexington, Mass., his roots were as Yankee as Plymouth Rock. His father, George Washington Spaulding, was a farmer who drove a milk route and operated a general store. When he was 12, Whit began delivering groceries after school, and he sang in the choir at the Congregational church. Early on, he evinced an interest in things mechanical and electrical, and one of his proudest youthful achievements was building his own crystal set.
Given this bent, it seemed only natural for young Whit Spaulding to enroll at MIT in the fall of 1917. There, he excelled in his engineering courses and earned tuition money by tutoring underclassmen in calculus. But for all his mathematical acumen, Spaulding was no antisocial grind. Frequently, he would study while drifting in a rented canoe down the Charles River. He also had a flair for drama and theater, and when he was a senior, he helped write and acted in the "Tech Show. "
After graduation, Spaulding worked for a local hydroelectric company by day while studying for his master's degree at night. Through his college roommate, he learned of a promising job in St. Louis, and in late 1921 he traveled there to work for the Century Electric Co. He found lodging in the suburban town of Kirkwood, on the second floor of a grand old clapboard mansion with a huge encircling porch.
Shortly before Christmas that year, Spaulding was returning to his boarding house one day when he saw two young women building a snowman in the front yard. One of them spied him and, in a burst of playfulness, tossed a snowball at him. The girl had dark-blond hair, vivid blue eyes and a porcelain complexion, and her fetching smile and blithe laugh telegraphed a readiness for fun and adventure.
The lively young woman turned out to be Elizabeth Jewell Moore, whose family rented the first floor of the house. "Beth" was home on vacation from Washington, D.C., where she worked for the government, and at 22, she was regarded as one of the belles of Kirkwood. Her family was a boisterous bunch, fond of regular soirees, during which everyone would gather around the piano, and the girls would sing and the family rooster would crow.
Spaulding was invited to dine with the Moore family that Christmas and was quite infatuated with their daughter. Beth, in turn, was fascinated by this shy, awkward man from the East. Their friendship blossomed into a courtship that continued until the following September, when Whit returned to Massachusetts to resume studying for his master's degree. His studies were absorbing, but he couldn't stop thinking of the impish young woman who had ambushed him with a snowball. That fall, he sent Beth his class signet ring with a cryptic message: "Wear left four or return. " Beth followed those directions and sent Whit proof. She tied a string to the shutter lever of a box camera and snapped a picture of herself proudly wearing the ring on her finger.
In the next several months, Whit and Beth continued their courtship by mail. In the summer of 1923, Whit returned to Missouri to work for the Union Electric Co. That winter, when he was offered a job by the Pennsylvania Water & Power Co., Whit told Beth that a prerequisite for the position was that he be married. Beth gladly offered her hand, and on March 27, 1924, Beth and Whit Spaulding were wed.
Spaulding was first assigned to be a test engineer at a power plant in Holtwood, Pa., a Lancaster County town on the Susquehanna River several miles south of Harrisburg. The place was rustic and isolated, and the Spauldings lived in a wood-frame company house atop the bluffs. Because their budget was so slim, they bought canned goods by the case to save money. Young, poor and deeply in love, they couldn't have asked for more out of life.
During his time in Holtwood, Spaulding distinguished himself by devising a method to reclaim coal residue from river silt and to use it to fuel the power plant. Shortly, he was promoted to assistant chief engineer and transferred to the company's headquarters in Baltimore. The Spauldings lived in an apartment, and then, as Whit climbed higher in the company, they moved to a first-floor duplex and finally to their first detached home.
By the mid-1930s, the Spauldings had two daughters, Judy and Miriam, and both Whit and Beth were very busy. Whit was a workaholic, laboring far into the night and on Saturdays and Sundays. He loved his work, and he wanted to get ahead. He enjoyed being able to treat his family to such luxuries as a full-time housemaid, summer vacations in Maine, and a small cottage overlooking the Bush River near Edgewood, Md. He was a serious, businesslike man, whose mien could be forbidding at times, but beneath that flinty professional carapace was a gentle, romantic heart. Once, while he and his wife were courting, they heard a cardinal sing. "Whenever you hear a cardinal sing, you'll know that I love you," Whit told Beth, and it was a promise his wife remembered for the rest of her life. He often touched Beth fondly when they passed each other, and he especially delighted in ruffling the hair at the back of her neck.
Beth was equally busy in those days. She had joined the local women's club and was writing poetry, and she and her husband were active in their neighborhood Episcopal church. Whit was a vestryman and superintendent of the Sunday school; Beth sang in the choir and headed the women's auxiliary. During the church's annual drama show, the thespian abilities Whit had first demonstrated in the MIT "Tech Show" emerged again when he donned a kelly- green tuxedo and cavorted across the stage.
It was easy to like the Spauldings - they were so animated, so outgoing, so full of fun and surprises. Few who attended their parties ever forgot. Beth, the master hostess, always insisted on providing the best food and drink and using the best china and silverware. She set her tables with the care and flair of a Tiffany's windowdresser. After dinner, the guests would play such games as charades well into the night. Beth loved being the life of the party, and Whit loved watching her. Once, when the Spauldings were about to have their living and dining rooms repapered, they threw a party at which guests were given crayons. Those who covered the walls with the most imaginative - or ridiculous - artwork were awarded prizes. For another party, they had fresh lobsters and clams shipped from Maine in a barrel packed with seaweed. (Who could forget Whit charging after Beth with a live, wriggling lobster in each hand, and Beth trying to ward him off with a broom? ) Another time, the Spauldings trimmed the back yard with colorful Japanese lanterns and set up a phonograph outside so their guests could dance under the stars.
The Spauldings expended just as much energy on their family. Their two daughters were educated at private schools and ferried to ballet and piano lessons, as well as summer camp and the orthodontist. They learned ballroom dancing and were regularly taken to museums or to hear the symphony. In remembering their childhood, the Spaulding girls would think of picnics in summertime, sledding parties in winter, their father hiding peanuts for a birthday party "hunt" and lighting Roman candles on the Fourth of July, their mother making jelly from the family's own grapes, their loving parents dancing on the lawn at twilight to the music of Glenn Miller.
AT THE OPENING OF THE Myth of Sisyphus, the French writer Albert Camus declares: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. "
For centuries, this question has occupied philosophers, theologians and essayists. They have argued about it vehemently, and without resolution. In ancient Greece and Rome, suicide was regarded as a noble act in certain circumstances (to express grief and avoid dishonor in war) and some of the most famous names in antiquity took their own lives - Socrates, Cato, Zeno, Demosthenes, Petronius, Hannibal, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The Greek philosopher Zeno, founder of the Stoics, believed that "the wise man will for reasonable cause make his own exit from life on his country's behalf, or for the sake of his friends, or if he suffer intolerable pain, mutilation, or incurable disease. "
To the Vikings, the surest way to reach Valhalla was to be killed in battle; the next best way was to kill yourself. The ancient Scythians considered it an honor to take their own lives when they became too old to continue their nomadic way of life. Four suicides are recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible, and some would even contend that Jesus Christ was a suicide, since he offered no defense to his captors and executioners. Certainly, many early Christians, in their haste to achieve salvation, pursued martyrdom with a provocative zeal that could only be described as suicidal.
Indeed, the mass suicide of early Christians so threatened the survival of the church that St. Augustine felt compelled to denounce suicide as a rejection of God and God's will - and hence a sin. Later, the church would refuse funeral rites to people who committed suicide, and in the 11th century St. Bruno would condemn suicides as "martyrs for Satan. " Dante consigned suicides to the most squalid circle of hell, and St. Thomas Aquinas called suicide "the most fatal of sins, because it cannot be repented of. "
Some of the brightest lights of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, however, braved the censure of the church to offer dissenting views. Sir Thomas More endorsed euthanasia in his Utopia, and John Donne inquired in his Biathanatos whether "self-homicide is not so naturally Sinne, that it may never be otherwise. " In his Essays, Montaigne called death "a very secure haven, never to be feared and often to be sought," and in his New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon said it was the duty of doctors to relieve the "pains and dolors" of their patients by helping them "make a fair and easy passage. "
The Scottish philosopher David Hume addressed the issue squarely in his famous essay "Of Suicide," which was published in 1777, a year after Hume's own death. If man is forbidden to tamper with God's design, he argued, "it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. . . . Both courage and prudence should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence when it becomes a burden. "
Others, such as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, differed. "We have no right to offer violence to our nature's powers of self-preservation. . . .," Kant claimed. "Human beings are sentinels on earth and may not leave their posts until relieved by another beneficent hand. " In a similar vein, jurist William Blackstone, in his landmark history of English law, stated that "the suicide is guilty of a double offence: one spiritual, in evading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the King, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects. "
To Friedrich Nietzsche, the thought of suicide was "a strong consolation" - "one can get through many a bad night with it. " Believing that "many die too late and a few die too early," Nietzsche asserted that ''there is a certain right by which we may deprive a man of life, but none by which we may deprive him of death. "
In 1897, with the publication of Le Suicide, the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim demystified suicide by examining it as a social fact and analyzing it scientifically. Shortly thereafter, Alfred Hoche, the German psychiatrist-philosopher, coined the term Bilanz Selbstmord - or ''balance-sheet suicide" - to cover instances of apparently rational suicide by those who had taken stock of their lives, weighed the pros and cons, and decided, carefully and deliberately, that death was preferable to life.
In recent years, the debate over the ethics of suicide has continued to arouse strong opinions, even though the act of suicide is no longer as stigmatized and shrouded in taboo as it used to be. Certainly, the attitude toward suicide has evolved since a couple of centuries ago, when a person who committed "self-murder" in England was condemned as a felon, his property reverted to the crown, and his corpse was buried at a crossroads under a pile of stones, often with a stake driven through the heart.
Today, in the United States, suicide is no longer a crime, although assisting someone to commit suicide is illegal. While suicide is still widely regarded as a sin, there is frequently a wide gap between religious doctrine and practice. "Today, it's not unusual for the church to respond to a suicide by saying that when the act was done, the person was not in control of his or her life and therefore not morally responsible," says Father Genovesi of St. Joseph's University. "Therefore, the church would not deny a Catholic burial. "
"When there's been a death, the family needs consolation," says Rabbi David H. Wice of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. "Who am I to pass judgment? Who knows what a person's motives were or what kind of pressures he or she faced? Everyone has a breaking point. I'm not judgmental, and I don't believe I have to follow the rules of every guy who recorded his opinions throughout the ages. He weighed it in his time, and I'm weighing it in mine. "
THE 20TH CENTURY has seen suicide attain a certain intellectual respectability, even romantic glamour. Poet Hart Crane, Kodak founder George Eastman, Truman administration Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, macho novelist Ernest Hemingway, sex icon Marilyn Monroe, poet Sylvia Plath, poet John Berryman, poet Anne Sexton - all sought escape from the disappointments and tribulations of life in the sweet oblivion of death.
In 1935, when Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an early feminist crusader, killed herself, she left behind a note that explained, "I have preferred chloroform to cancer. " In an essay published posthumously, she wrote, "The record of a previously noble life is precisely what makes it sheer insult to allow death in pitiful degradation. We may not wish to 'die with our boots on' but we may well prefer to die with our brains on. "
That is a sentiment that Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen evidently shared. One of the country's most distinguished theologians, Van Dusen, 77, and his wife, Elizabeth, 80, killed themselves in 1975 by swallowing sleeping pills in the bedroom of their Princeton home. Dr. Van Dusen, a vigorous Presbyterian who was widely respected for his compassion and intellectual keenness, was born in Philadelphia and educated at the William Penn Charter School, Princeton and Union Theological Seminary in New York, where later, for nearly two decades, he served as president. He was one of the architects of the World Council of Churches and an energetic scholar who was deeply interested in helping the poor and fostering cooperation among different religions. He and his wife were also members of the Euthanasia Society of America, a New York-based group that advocates an individual's right to "die with dignity. "
After Van Dusen was partially paralyzed by a stroke that made it difficult for him to speak intelligibly, and after his wife was hobbled by severe arthritis, the couple decided it was time to act on their beliefs. In a letter they left behind, the Van Dusens said they had led "happy lives" but now were frustrated because poor health prevented them from being able "to do what we want to do. " They expressed their resolve not to "die in a nursing home" or to have their departure from life prolonged by medical intervention. Commenting on the Van Dusens' suicide, Norman Cousins wrote: "They didn't like the idea of taking up space in a world with too many mouths and too little food. They believed they had the right to die when their time had come. It was precisely because they had placed the highest value on life that they didn't want life to become a caricature. "
Two years ago, a similar path was followed by another major thinker of our times. On March 1, 1983, Arthur Koestler, 77, the Hungarian-born author of the anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon, and his wife, Cynthia, 55, killed themselves by taking an overdose of barbiturates in their London townhouse. Koestler had been suffering from Parkinson's disease and leukemia and, according to friends, found life "intolerable. " Cynthia Koestler was apparently in good health, but in a postscript to her husband's suicide note, she wrote, "I cannot live without Arthur, despite certain inner resources. "
Both were members of the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Koestler, in fact, wrote the preface to A Guide to Self-Deliverance, a 1981 suicide manual published and distributed by the society. "The prospect of falling peacefully, blissfully asleep is not only soothing but can make it positively desirable to quit this pain-racked mortal frame," Koestler wrote. ''. . . There is only one prospect worse than being chained to an intolerable existence: the nightmare of a botched attempt to end it. "
The American counterpart to the Voluntary Euthanasia Society is the Hemlock Society, which is based in Los Angeles and takes its name from the lethal potion swallowed by Socrates. Formed in 1980 by British journalist Derek Humphry, who helped his cancer-stricken wife of 22 years kill herself with drugs in 1975, the Hemlock Society sells a book titled Let Me Die Before I Wake that bills itself as a guide to "self-deliverance for the dying" and includes detailed descriptions of various lethal drugs and dosages that will ensure a successful suicide. "Modern medicine does much to prolong lives, but the extension of life does not necessarily mean that it has extended its quality," says Humphry. "Some people can accept a diminution of the things which make life worth living; others of us cannot. "
The advent of such organizations and publications is anathema to many Americans, who still regard suicide with repugnance and view the growing acceptance of euthanasia as a symptom of moral decadence, arrogant individualism, and nuclear-age anomie and despair. To many religious leaders, suicide is the ultimate blasphemy: God, after all, is the landlord of life; we are only the tenants.
Men and women are here "to preserve God's creation as best they can, and never to give up," wrote Monsignor S.J. Adamo in a recent column in the Philadelphia Daily News. "No matter how miserable one's life may become, there is some good to it. The light of consciousness surpasses the darkness of oblivion. In short, any kind of life is better than death. That is why suicide is, as I believe, an irrational choice, an act of insanity. "
To psychiatrist Erwin Ringel, the founder of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, suicide is a perversion of the human instinct for self-preservation. "Who can presume to judge with certainty and finality what any one man is likely to experience during the rest of his natural life - whether that life last for years, or days, or hours?" he asks. No matter how dismal our prospects may seem, says Dr. Robert N. Butler, the author of Why Survive? Being Old in America, "the greatest of human possibilities remain to the very end of life - the possibilities for love and feeling, reconciliation and resolution. "
Nevertheless, there are many decent, thoughtful people who believe that suicide is a basic human right and that surviving the twilight years ought to be optional rather than obligatory. They would prefer to view God as a kind- hearted innkeeper who gives his residents the right to check out whenever they wish.
"People who insist that life must always be better than death," says British jurist Mary Rose Barrington, "often sound as if they are choosing eternal life in contrast to eternal death, when the fact is that they have no choice in the matter; it is death now, or death later. "
In his provocative 1980 book, Good Life/Good Death: A Doctor's Case for Euthanasia and Suicide, heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard writes: "I have always wondered at the kind of person who would mercifully end the life of a suffering animal yet would hesitate to extend the same privilege to a fellow being. . . . There is no nobility in pain, bravely borne or otherwise. There is no nobility in the fishlike gasps of a patient trying to suck more air into bulging emphysematous lungs. Neither is there nobility in the struggle of a patient who has both legs amputated at the hip to position himself on a bedpan. . . . I have learned from my life in medicine that death is not always an enemy. Often it is good medical treatment. Often it achieves what medicine cannot achieve - it stops suffering. "
FOR BETH SPAULDING, the suffering began one summer day in 1947 when the car she was driving was hit in the side by an unlicensed juvenile. Beth was badly bruised in the accident but otherwise appeared to be all right. After several months had passed and the bruise on her chest worsened, however, doctors examined her and discovered that her breast had become cancerous. In the winter of 1948, she underwent a radical mastectomy.
Beth remained in the hospital for several weeks. During this time, her oldest daughter, Judy, came home from college to manage the household and care for her younger sister, Miriam. Beth had been the glue that held the family together, and for Whit, his wife's hospitalization was scary and disorienting - a visceral reminder of just how fragile and ephemeral life is. At night, he would wander through the house, touching his wife's "pretties" - the glass and ceramic bibelots and knickknacks that his wife had made or collected over the years. Often, he would sit in his wife's creaky rocker, his soft sobs rippling the surface of the still night.
Eventually, Beth returned home, but it seemed as though the surgeons had also excised her spirit. Ashamed of her disfigured body and burdened with a sense of imminent doom, she was inconsolably despondent. To make matters worse, she had to undergo hellish cobalt treatments, which caused her to vomit anything she ate, burned her skin, loosened her hair and triggered hormonal changes that altered her mood and appearance.
Mired in melancholy himself, Whit put on a valiant face. He tended to his wife constantly and showered her with gifts. One day, he gave her a box of pastels. Beth began drawing pictures, then began painting in oils. Soon, she set a goal for herself: one painting a day. Buoyed by her creative achievements, she began smiling again. Friends, some of whom had also lost a breast to cancer, came to visit and commiserate. Slowly, she began feeling less like a pariah, more like a woman who had something to live for.
In time, the cancer retreated, the cobalt treatments ended, and life for the Spauldings returned to normal. Whit was as busy as ever at work. His responsibilities continued to grow, reaching a peak in November 1951, when he was elected president of the company. Meanwhile, Beth continued to write poetry and to paint and to host parties at their summer home on the banks of the Severn River.
In 1955, when his company merged with Pennsylvania Power & Light, Whit became vice president of the enlarged corporation, and the Spauldings moved to Allentown. Typically, they made many new friends, gave and attended lots of parties, and joined and participated in many community groups and activities. Whit was a vestryman at the local Episcopal church, a Shriner and a Mason. He was president of the Lehigh Valley Community Council and in 1973 received its community leadership award. He was chairman of a regional study group in the statewide Comprehensive Mental Health and Retardation Program. He was a vice president of Allentown's Livingston Club. He was president of the MIT Club of the Lehigh Valley. He was a director of the Lehigh Valley Social Service Exchange. He was co-chairman of the major gifts division of the Allentown YM/ YWCA fund-raising campaign. He was a member of the finance committee and department of missions of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. He also belonged to the Allentown Chamber of Commerce and served on the board and executive committee of Muhlenberg Medical Center.
Encouraged by the popularity of her landscapes and seascapes, Beth launched a career as a professional artist. She had several one-artist shows in Baltimore, Allentown and Boothbay Harbor. She also won several national awards for her poetry. In 1966, when Wind in the Pines, her first volume of poetry, was published, its cover was graced by one of Beth's own woodcuts. She also served on the board of directors of the Wiley House Children's Home of Allentown and Bethlehem and always found time to visit her daughters for surprise lunches, shopping trips or to drop off "care" packages when she sensed that they and their families were under the weather.
IF SUICIDE IS BEGINNING TO seem more like a solution than a problem, it is
because we as a society do not care about the old. That is the opinion of many professionals who work with or have studied the aged. To them, suicide is a desperate act that should not be romanticized or implicitly sanctioned in an enlightened, civilized society.
"I'm opposed to suicide," says Renee Garfinkel, a psychologist in gerontology and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "While there are circumstances when it's understandable, by and large a person chooses death only when life becomes unbearable. . . . It's a terrible indictment of our society when conditions for the elderly are such that they start killing themselves. "
If suicide, as writer Wilfred Sheed has said, is "the sincerest form of criticism life gets," it is easy to understand its appeal when so many aged Americans are sick, crippled, poor, lonely, isolated and abandoned by relatives and friends. About 15 percent of the elderly live in poverty, and an estimated 30 percent of the aged live in substandard housing. Even those who are affluent are frequently warehoused in nursing homes or shunted to ''golden age" ghettos where they're left to struggle against a sense that they're unimportant, superfluous, powerless - vacuum-tube relics in a microchip world. Small wonder, then, that so many old people feel hopeless and that so many of them are curing that hopelessness by killing themselves.
In his book Suicide After Sixty: The Final Alternative, Dr. Marv Miller speaks of "the line of unbearability" - "the point where the quality of our lives would be so pathetically poor we would no longer wish to live. " It is a line many old people cross. Usually, the most obvious symptom of this passage is acute depression. In some cases, depression is an organic consequence of the diseases of old age, but, as Dr. Robert N. Butler observes in Why Survive? Being Old in America, there are also the "everyday depressions that stem from long physical illness or chronic discomfort, from grief, despair and loneliness, and from an inevitably lowered self-esteem that comes from diminished social and personal status. "
"In some sense, our society hasn't caught up to longer life expectancy, to what it means to plan a life across eight decades instead of five or six," says Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at the Hastings Center research institute in New York. "What do we offer people who are living 20 or 30 years past retirement with no meaningful work or full way to participate in society? "
"Hopelessness is one of the most significant factors in predicting suicidality," says Dr. Gary Gottlieb, a psychiatrist in the Foerderer Geriatrics Evaluation Service of the University of Pennsylvania. "Many of these people are hopeless because they're depressed. In fact, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the people thought to be senile are, in fact, depressed, which is completely treatable. Yet the elderly are the population group with absolutely the least access to health care. "
"Our system of mental health care for the elderly is a scandal," says Dr. Harry R. Moody, deputy director of the Brookdale Center on Aging of Hunter
College in New York City. "There's a noticeable lack of interest among psychiatrists in treating the aged. It goes back to Freud, who didn't want to treat any patient over 40. There's an assumption that the young can grow and change but the old are over the hill and not worth the effort. "
Notes Miller: "A very low priority seems to be placed on saving the lives of those who have left the work force. After people retire in the United States, their status usually diminishes because they are no longer productive in an economic sense. Therefore, the deaths of such people do not represent a serious loss to the economy. "
If, indeed, our attitude toward the old is a function of their economic worth, then the aged in America have much to fear at a time when the federal budget deficit is out of control and when there is talk in the land of building more bombers and missiles while limiting funds for programs such as Medicare that benefit the elderly. Some worry, in fact, that as the elderly population grows and begins making more demands, our society will come to endorse suicide as an easy, cheap solution.
"God help us if this is how we deal with the difficulties of people living longer," says Herbert Hendin, professor of psychiatry at New York Medical
College and the author of Suicide in America. "It would be a hell of a social policy if everybody who needs a mastectomy or a tumor removed is
somehow encouraged to believe that suicide is an alternative. "
Even right-to-die advocates are wary of the impact of a widespread acceptance of old-age suicide. Says Margaret P. Battin, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah and a nationally recognized expert on the ethics of suicide: "Making suicide an option may relieve us from the obligation of making the conditions of old age better. "
The wild card in all this is the baby-boom generation, now steaming ineluctably toward Yeats' "fortieth winter. " By the time the baby boomers pass their 65th birthday, the aged will be a dominant group in American society; by 2030, about a fifth of the population will be older than 65. Energetic, well-educated, rambunctious - and characteristically more interested in living for today than tomorrow - the boomers in old age could either exterminate themselves in unprecedented numbers or turn the nation into a gerontocracy and change all our ideas about the elderly and the stages of life. The custom of retiring at 65 or 70, for example, may well go the way of love beads and long hair as more people begin thinking of the years 50 to 75 as the "third quarter" of life. The media would be forced to cater to the enthusiasms of the elderly or risk forfeiting a huge potential audience. In time, it may even be chic to be wrinkled and gray. If that sounds preposterous, remember that the current occupant of the White House is a youthful 74.
"I'm encouraged by the fact that we now have older sex symbols - women like Joan Collins and Linda Evans," says Penn's Dr. Alessandroni. "As the baby- boom generation continues to gain clout, it may well be that the middle- aged and elderly will come into their own, and we'll begin seeing more positive images of the aged. Even the 'Where's the beef?' lady is a positive thing in its own screwy little way. "
In the end, then, suicide may remain only a problem, the aberrant recourse of a desperate few. With luck, "Why survive?" may become a silly question in a world where the elderly - healthy, respected and loved - are having too much fun to quit early.
IN 1966, WHIT SPAULDING retired, and he and Beth began enjoying themselves with the same verve they had brought to all their other endeavors. They traveled widely, visiting Bermuda, Jamaica, the Southwest, Mexico, Canada and Alaska. They took a train ride across the country and a five-month cruise in the South Pacific. As usual, they met scads of people and made many new friends. A prodigious letter-writer, Whit kept in touch with people all across the country. At Christmas, the Spauldings sent out 300 to 500 Christmas cards.
For a while, the Spauldings rented an apartment in Key Biscayne, Fla. Then, in 1972, they purchased a retirement home that overlooked the seventh hole of a golf course in Sarasota - a perfect arrangement for Whit, who enjoyed golf immensely. In summer, when the heat became oppressive, the Spauldings would fly north to their vacation cottage in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. How they both loved the jagged rocks and roiling surf and fragrant pines.
By the mid-'70s, however, Beth was beginning to have serious health problems. She had already suffered a heart attack, and degenerative arthritis had so ravaged her joints that in 1976 she had to undergo a complete hip transplant. The operation was risky, and Beth's life was in danger. Whit was terrified that he might lose her. It was then that he concluded that he and Beth should die together.
In the early '70s, Whit had begun collecting articles and reading books about euthanasia. In a sense, it was typical, natural behavior for a man who had always delighted in being in control, planning ahead, nailing down the details. The next big event in his life, Whit knew, was death, and it seemed only sensible to prepare for it in an orderly way. One of his favorite texts was Morals and Medicine, a 1954 book by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal minister and then a professor of pastoral theology and Christian ethics at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass. One of the chapters in Fletcher's book is titled "Euthanasia: Our Right to Die," and Whit read that chapter over and over, underlining passages that seemed particularly persuasive. One of the passages he underlined was this: "To prolong life uselessly, while the personal qualities of freedom, knowledge, self- possession and control, and responsibility are sacrificed, is to attack the moral status of a person. The issue is not one of life or death. The issue is which kind of death, an agonized or peaceful one: Shall we meet death in personal integrity or in personal disintegration? Should there be a moral or a demoralized end to mortal life? "
Now, after his wife's hip operation, Whit began talking to his children about his intentions. His daughter Judy, a former Devon resident who now lives in Sarasota with her husband, Sam, remembers one such occasion. As was his custom when he wished to discuss something confidential, Whit invited Judy to stroll with him on the golf course. He took her arm, and as they trod the lush grass in the bright sunshine, he said, "We almost lost your mother this time, and it's not going to happen again, because if it happens again, we're both going to go together. If anything happens to either one of us, we've made a pact that the other will take whatever steps are necessary so that neither one of us has to live alone. We have lived too long together not to go into the next world together. Whatever is out there, we want to face it together. "
Judy recalls her reaction: "I remember stopping to catch my breath. I swallowed very hard. It was like someone had hit me in the stomach. It took a few minutes to realize what he had said. He kept on talking, and I said, 'Wait a minute, Dad. You better go back. I've lost your train of thought. . . . ' Eventually, I came to a point where I decided I didn't like it but I understood. "
In embracing euthanasia, Whit Spaulding was influenced by more than what he had gleaned from newspapers and books. Whit's own father had endured a slow, horrible death. For years, he and Beth had donated blood to a close friend who was battling leukemia. And for two decades, Whit had paid $175 a week to keep his wife's mother in a nursing home. Once a zesty woman, she was confined to a bed and had to be spoonfed and diapered. She was usually unaware of who she was or where she was; occasionally she would call for her husband, who had died years before. To Whit, she was just a living corpse, a hairless, shriveled vegetable waiting for that merciful moment when her heart would stop beating.
In 1976, to formalize their desires, Whit and Beth Spaulding signed "living wills," directing that they not be attached to life-support systems in the event of terminal illness. They also instructed their personal physician to abstain from administering any drugs or other medical treatments that would extend the process of dying.
By 1980, the Spauldings no longer had the stamina to travel to Maine, and reluctantly they sold their beloved house in Boothbay Harbor. In addition to her other ailments, Beth was becoming senile. Several times, she drove to the supermarket, became confused and forgot how to get home. Eventually, her driver's license was withdrawn. Meanwhile, Whit's hearing and eyesight were failing. He could no longer follow the flight path of his golf balls and had to depend on his golfing buddy to find them.
Earlier, the Spauldings had applied to live in a luxurious "life-care" condominium. Twice, their names had come to the top of the list, but each time they declined because they believed they could still manage for themselves. When their names came up a third time, Beth finally admitted that she didn't want to leave her home. She enjoyed watching the sun rise over the golf course and hearing the mourning doves at dusk. This, she told Whit, was where she wanted to finish her days.
To make life easier, they hired a housekeeper and a cook. But because of the Spauldings' physical infirmities, their lives were more and more circumscribed, their pleasures more and more limited. Since selling the house in Maine, they had stopped traveling altogether. Beth no longer painted, and Whit no longer sang in the choral group of the Sahib Temple, which visited nursing homes and hospitals around Sarasota. Beth was sleeping a lot, and it seemed as if the only thing she lived for now was cocktail hour. "The sun's over the yardarm," she'd announce, and then she'd drink her two long-awaited bourbons, while Whit had a martini.
In April 1982, Whit wrote a three-page memorandum for his family and close friends "to avoid any impressions that any act on our part was sudden, ill- considered, or resulted from any irrational act."
After stating that he and Beth endorsed the principles of euthanasia, Whit said: "There may come a time in the life of either of us when our senses may be impaired or our minds affected so that we can no longer have control of our own acts or desires. At such time, we have agreed between us that the other shall take it upon him or herself, with the full prior consent and pleading of the other, to take such action as will assure prompt death with dignity to both of us simultaneously.
"We have both lived a full, active life, participating in many religious, cultural and business activities. We have good memories of them and of our many friends from all over the world. . . . We believe we have - both of us - contributed much to many aspects of our society and in many places. . . . We gave of our assets and ourselves willingly - both to society and to God's Kingdom on earth. Now, with our respective disabilities and weaknesses, we are no longer able to make such contributions, but must from now on live on pension and other incomes - consuming assets, services and resources which can be of greater worth to others.
"Why then should we - or others in similar circumstances - demand, require or be supplied with attentions and services to maintain a dying limb on a tree that can never again produce or render a service to society?
"We are aware that society will unlikely come to grips with this problem in our lifetime or yours. . . . However, the world cannot forever provide for an ever-growing number of the elderly, many of whom rapidly reach senility and become totally comatose. "
EVER SINCE CLEOPAtra killed herself to join Mark Antony, and Juliet killed herself to join Romeo, suicides by couples have been glorified by an aura of romance and altruism. In reality, however, these "pact suicides" are often much less - and more - than they seem.
In many ancient societies, favorite wives frequently slew themselves on their husbands' graves, and in India, as recently as the last century, the wives of Hindu men practiced a custom called suttee, throwing themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres. Such traditions never took root in Western societies, and today, in the United States, couple suicides are quite rare. Of the 5,895 suicides recorded in Dade County, Fla., between 1957 and 1981, for example, only 20 - or 0.0068 percent of the total - involved pacts between lovers or spouses. Moreover, contrary to popular impression, most couple suicides are committed not by young lovers but by older married couples who are devoted to each other, socially isolated and suffering from a variety of physical and emotional illnesses.
"It's not the Romeo and Juliet kind of thing," says Dr. Milton Rosenbaum, distinguished visiting professor of psychiatry at Marshall University School of Medicine in Huntington, W.Va. "Suicide pacts are not usually by mutual consent. The man is usually the instigator, and he usually talks his wife into it. Often the wife is reluctant. Often the man is depressed. A fairly large percentage of the men have a history of suicidal, even homicidal behavior. "
In many cases, a husband will manipulate his wife into a pact suicide by casting it as a test of affection and loyalty: "If you love me, you will be willing to die with me. " Writes Herbert Hendin in Suicide in America: "The line between a love-pact suicide and a murder-suicide can become a fine one. . . . The suicide pact is in fact . . . often a form of tyranny, affirming one partner's desire to control the life of the other. The coercive grandiosity of the Rev. Jim Jones, in a bizarre and exaggerated way, suggests the social relations of many who are suicidal and who bind others to them 'even unto death. ' "
When Cynthia Koestler, 55 and healthy, killed herself along with her husband, Arthur, 77 and ailing, there were many who regarded it as the ultimate gesture of love. But others saw it as a pathetic act of self- abnegation by a pathologically self-effacing woman who had been impossibly devoted to an imposing, domineering husband - a man who had nicknamed her ''Slavey" and who throughout his life had struggled with depression and been preoccupied by suicide.
"Our tradition of romantic love is that all great lovers have to be dead," says Penn gerontologist Renee Garfinkel. "But if love is supposed to enable each person to reach his or her fullest potential, how can love be invoked to justify ending one's life altogether? "
Still, there are those elderly couples who have lived together so long, who love each other so deeply, who have such a strong, binding, symbiotic relationship that they are virtually Siamese twins, incapable - psychologically and physically - of living apart. In Cat's Cradle, author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. uses the word duprass to describe such a couple. "They were lovebirds. They entertained each other endlessly with little gifts: sights worth seeing out the plane window, amusing or instructive bits from things they read, random recollections of times gone by. " A true duprass, Vonnegut continues, "can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union. " Moreover, he writes, the members of a duprass always die within a week of each other, often within the same second.
The suicide of such a couple, some psychologists and philosophers argue, can be positive and "covenant-affirming. " Indeed, in Suicides, the French social philosopher Jean Baechler states that "the only authentic suicide pacts I have been able to discover concern . . . old married couples crushed by misery and/or infirmities. " Often, such couples strongly believe in an afterlife. Like the Spauldings, they view death as merely a passage and fully expect to rejoin each other beyond the grave.
Grieve not, nor keep my memory fresh
With flowers laid daily on my grave,
I am not there, 'Tis but the earthly shell,
My soul has gone to Him, who gave.
Hold me not forever dead, for Death
Is but a moment's passing, then the Light,
And into God's kind hands, I rest
Forever, from my earthly flight.
But if on summer's day, you hear a singing bird,
Or see a rose pearled with morning dew,
I bid you, think of me with smiling lips,
For such were mine, each day of life, with you.
- from Wind in the Pines
by Beth M. Spaulding
It all unraveled the weekend after Thanksgiving, 1982. Beth and Whit returned from visiting friends in Fort Myers, and both were exhausted. On Friday afternoon, Whit played golf and realized that his hearing was getting worse. That night, his wife ate little, barely spoke and was confused. Whit had difficulty hearing the television, and his hip, which had been troubling him for the past couple of weeks, began acting up.
In a note he left on his desk, Whit described the rest of the weekend:
"I had to get supper Saturday night and had a nice one; we both ate well. After Lawrence Welk, which I could not understand at all, we started for bed and Beth fell. My hip prevented me from lifting her but somehow we got her into bed.
"This morning, Sunday, I did not dare go out to church. I arose at 7 a.m. and was eating my breakfast when Beth came in. She never gets up that early. She wouldn't eat for a long time but slept in her chair. I had great difficulty hearing her. About 9:30, she had a cup of cocoa and a piece of toast. We then started for her bed. Again she fell and I thought we would never get her in bed. She complains that her legs hurt. My hip is so bad I couldn't help.
"She and I agreed this morning we had reached a point where we must say goodbye but would not tell you first. You would be praying for us anyway and what else could you do?
"You know we love you all and we know you all love us. May God in his mercy understand. "
THE FOLLOWING DAY, Monday, the Spauldings' neighbors noticed that the newspaper was still in the Spauldings' driveway, that their drapes were still drawn and that their garage door was still closed. When they telephoned the Spauldings, no one answered. Worried, they called the Spauldings' cook and asked her to come early so she could check on the couple. About 1 p.m., the cook arrived, and when she unlocked the front door, she found it fastened by a chain lock. She could smell exhaust fumes.
The sheriff was summoned, and when the sheriff's officers arrived, they forced open the door and found the Spauldings in the garage. They were both sitting in the back seat of their car. Whit was wearing pale-green pajamas and a blue bathrobe. Beth was dressed in pale-blue pajamas and a flowered orange-and-pink knee-length robe. Whit was holding her in his arms, possessively and protectively, as if to ensure that they would begin their next life as they had lived their last - together.