Some states in America have legalized physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Imagine that a mysterious entrepreneur took advantage of this to establish a chain of suicide parlors, where dying patients could have the “Passing of their Choice.” There would be spiritual Passings with bells and gongs, convivial Passings with wine and song, erotic Passings with strippers and lap-dancers – every taste catered for. Imagine that terminal patients were encouraged, chivvied and cajoled into these suicide parlors by an aggressive marketing campaign, collusive doctors and relatives glad to be rid of them. Imagine finally that, when his business proved very profitable, this mysterious entrepreneur lobbied the debt-ridden federal government to remove existing legal restrictions so that nonterminally ill patients with incurable diseases could also opt for suicide. At a stroke the enormous and rising costs of long-term care for the chronically ill would be dramatically reduced (not to speak of Sunset Parlor Inc.’s profits being correspondingly increased), while Americans who would prefer to die rather than remain a burden on their relatives, society and themselves could find the Passing of their Choice in a Sunset Parlor near you.
That is the topic of my novel, a darkly comic satire on the commercial exploitation of death. But Sunset Parlor is more than that. It also raises questions about the ethics of euthanasia—not abstractly, but through scenes ranging from comic to tragic, played out by a varied cast of characters, from the silk-smooth entrepreneur with political ambitions to the hypocritical evangelical pastor with a gay lover, from the poor immigrant with terminal cancer who doesn’t want to die to the wounded veteran with a terrible crime on his conscience who does.
In this excerpt, John Kantzer, a terminally ill low-paid worker, attends the Grand Opening of the first Sunset Parlor in a decaying industrial town somewhere sometime in twenty-first century America. Bemused and distressed by the crowd, he is about to leave when he hears a voice behind him.
Excuse me, sir, a young woman’s suave voice inquires at his shoulder. Can I help you?
Turning slowly round, he finds himself confronting a blandly smiling, sympathetic face with bland blue eyes and bland fair hair, whose owner’s lapel button blandly declares her name is Candy.
“Well, I don’t know,” John Kantzer answers uncertainly. “I mean, what, er what exactly is it you do here?”
“Oh I’d just love to explain,” Candy mellifluously replies. “Maybe we could go into a counseling room? I believe we may be able to help you, sir.”
Help him? John feels vaguely threatened. Has he asked for help? Not that he doesn’t need it, but still.
Nevertheless he allows Candy to take his elbow and guide him into a room like a rich doctor’s office, or at least what he imagines a rich doctor’s office is like. A woman hasn’t taken his arm since he can’t remember when. He’d forgotten what a warm comforting feeling that is. At the door, Candy pauses to nod and smile to a passing young black woman with an equally bland and sympathetic face, whose lapel button blandly announces that she’s Angie. “Hi,” Angie says to Candy in a low purring voice and includes him too in her amiable greeting. John doesn’t see and anyway couldn’t interpret the swift subtle commerce that the two young women’s eyes then transact. But if he could, he would have read Got any hits yet? And I’m doin’ good.
“Now,” sighs Candy as, settling John into a comfortable chair, she sits in her own no less comfortable chair opposite and places her clasped hands on the broad elegant desk between them. It’s almost as if this is the moment she’s been waiting for all day—a few minutes alone with this interesting man above all others. “Can I get you a coffee? Coke?”
John Kantzer shakes his head. How quiet and peaceful it is in here, is what he’s thinking, after all that echoing noise outside. Even the pain seems easier.
“Right,” Candy says. She leans forward slightly and steeples her hands now in front of her, pausing like someone waiting for a recording to come on in her head. Then perhaps one does, because she starts. “Maybe I should give you a rundown on what we do here first and then see if we can help you in any way, Mr….?”
“Kantzer,” he answers almost reluctantly, as though he’s giving a secret away. “John Kantzer.”
“John, right?” the smooth voice purrs. “What a nice name. Straightforward and honest.”
“Johann, where I came from,” John says, as though that might disqualify those flattering epithets.
“Johann? I get it. Johann — John, right? That’s cute.”
John doesn’t quite look as if he agrees with that epithet either, but he doesn’t say so. The quiet and the comfort here are calming his nerves as well as his pain. He regards Candy expectantly.
“And where do you come from, John, may I ask?”
“I was born in the Ukraine.” Again this feels like a secret prised out of him.
“Oh, Ukraine, right.” Candy’s eyes have hazed slightly. “Is that er like Europe?”
John nods. He’s used to people placing Ukraine in Australia, so this is a refreshing change.
“But, er, you are a resident of Obegon now, John?”
“Yes,” he nods again. “Why?”
“Well, that’s like getting ahead of the game, Candy smiles. Let’s just do the rundown first, ok?” She pauses to wheel her inner recording back, then presses Play again. “Let’s begin with Obegon State Statute OMS 127. That say anything to you John? No? Suppose I said the Death with Dignity Act?”
Now John looks puzzled, as indeed he is. “That something to do with the electric chair?” he hazards. He’s not sure he likes the way this conversation’s heading. Execution’s not what he wants to hear about. Not in his condition.
“We-e-ll, Candy concedes, that is like in the ball park, but…” She leans forward and looks earnestly with her limpid blue eyes into his anxious brown ones. “The Death with Dignity Act is just that, John. It’s about dying with dignity. Dignity, John. I mean that’s what we all want, isn’t it? If we can’t live for ever? A death with dignity?”
“Well, yes,” John agrees uneasily. “I guess so.” As if he hadn’t been worrying about that the last six months.
“And that’s what this act’s all about, John.” She leans still closer to him across the desk, and he is transitorily aware of the curve of her breasts under her close-fitting shirt. “This act,” she enunciates very slowly and distinctly, “legalises physician-assisted suicide in terminal cases of great pain.”
“That so?” John murmurs faintly.
“Of course, you have to be an Obegon resident. That’s why I asked you John. Remember I asked you?”
Yes, John does. At least, he nods as if he does.
“Because currently this act doesn’t apply to out-of-staters. That means you’re lucky, John. You may not think so, but it does.”
John certainly doesn’t look as though he thinks so, but Candy again assures him that he really is. “Yes, you’re lucky. You qualify. Do you have any idea how many people there are in Obegon that are like terminally ill and in pain – real unbearable pain, John? And would like to depart this life in a totally meaningful dignified and painless fashion of their own choosing, rather than suffer months of pointless agony and then die during the night in some corner of a public hospital where no one even notices till they’ve been cold for six hours or more?”
“What?” That was too much of a mouthful for him. And yet he’s digested enough of it to feel it’s also too near the bone. He finds himself helplessly watching Candy’s smooth full cherry-coloured lips wreathing themselves round still more of his own half-hidden thoughts and fears.
“Because we know what public hospitals are like, John, don’t we?”
John thinks he does, but has no time to say—
“Do you know how many people, John? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? She shakes her head, releasing a whiff of heavy perfume that reminds him of lilies and hence of funeral homes. “Probably nearer ten thousand, John. According to our research here in Sunset Parlor. Ten thousand who want to pass over with dignity. Isn’t that awesome?” Now Candy leans back and nods. “And that’s where Sunset Parlor comes in. The Death With Dignity Act allows these people to die with dignity, but it doesn’t make it easy. Our mission is to facilitate that final journey, to give them the best possible departure, the passing they themselves desire. A passing they and their loved ones can totally accept and enjoy. Where the Act enables, we empower. Now isn’t that something?”
It certainly is, but John is too dumbfounded to say so. He feels his heart pounding against his narrow chest. This isn’t what he came here for—and yet it almost feels as though it is. Or should have been.
“Forgive me asking, John,” her voice drops to a tone of pure dulcet concern, “but are you like ill yourself? Are you in pain?”
He gives his head a definite shake. He doesn’t want to lie, but this delicate probing scares the hell out of him, makes him want to run away. It’s as though she knows him better than he does himself. And what disturbs a man more than that?
“Really, John? Because I thought when I saw you just now, I thought here’s someone we could really help?”
Her voice hangs there, a sympathetic question mark he can’t erase.
“Well, maybe,” he gives at last.
Candy reaches out her hand to lay it on his. How warm and comforting it feels. “Bad pain, John?” she softly inquires. “Real bad?”
And now he nods, tears suddenly pricking his eyes. Real bad. Feeling the pressure of her smooth sympathetic palm round his worn gnarled knuckles, he almost chokes. “I got cancer, it’s…it’s…”
“Terminal?” she gently but firmly breathes.
Again that sympathetic squeeze of her warm young hand. At last he nods again and bites his lip against the tears, which nevertheless he can’t hold back. He sniffs and looks ashamedly away. “My wife died two years ago,” he mutters brokenly. “I got these morphine patches, but they don’t help much any more. My daughter don’t want to know, she’s…” And now he’s really sobbing.
Candy’s other hand reaches out. She clasps his in both of hers. “We can help you, John, her soothing honeyed tones caress him. We can help you.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author of a number of highly praised novels set in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, Christopher New was born in England and educated at Oxford and Princeton Universities. Formerly Head of the Philosophy Department at Hong Kong University, he is also the author of The Philosophy of Literature and numerous philosophical articles. You can learn more at christophernew.com.