Suicide Vows: When Elderly Couples Bid Farewell Together
The recent dual suicide of Bernard and Georgette Cazes at Paris' landmark Lutetia Hotel is a symbolic nod to the right-to-die movement, but also a melancholic reminder of eternal love.
PARIS — They are already a legend, Bernard and Georgette Cazes, the elderly lovers who chose to die together because one could not live without the other. The stoic symbolism of their joint suicide at the shared age of 86 is perhaps more romantic because of the location where it was carried out: a luxurious Art Deco room of the famed Lutetia hotel in central Paris.
A few days after the couple's death on Friday, Nov. 22, several of their friends received letters Bernard Cazes had sent them. The one addressed to Michel Kantor, a colleague from the magazine La Quinzaine Littéraire, ended with “Farewell, friend.” The one received by Dominique David, from the French Institute of International Relations (FIIR), had been written with a steady hand. It said Bernard's wife was losing her eyesight and that he could not imagine living without her. “You should know that we will do anything we can to end our lives. It is with difficulty that I bid you farewell,” he wrote.
On Thursday, Bernard and Georgette Cazes had left their quiet home in Issy-les-Moulineaux, in the southwestern outskirts of Paris. They booked a room at the Lutetia, the hotel where Georgette had found her father in 1945 after he spent five years in a German prison. The circle was complete. They lay down next to each other and were found the following day, hand-in-hand, plastic bags over their heads.
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The Lutetia in Paris' 6th Arrondisement — Photo: Elaine Vigneault
For some time, Bernard had been putting his affairs in order. He sent friends some of his old articles, disposed of outstanding paperwork, made phone calls to ask for the addresses of people he had not seen in a long time. A former senior official at the French General Planning Commission, the economist and philosopher always had an interest in the future — including planning everything about his own fate.
Thierry de Montbrial, director of the FIIR, remembers him as an “action-fueled intellectual with a beaming smile.” His colleagues at the publication mention his discretion, his passion for the Times Literary Supplement, the detached and caustic humor that made him smile when he read Maurice Nadeau’s Trotskyist tropisms in the Quinzaine.
Georgette, an elegant and refined elderly woman, was a former literature professor who read all the time — relying on bigger and bigger print as her eyesight diminished. Like Bernard, having control over her decisions in life was of fundamental importance. She stopped working one year before the age limit. “She ceased her activities one by one, when she deemed the time had come, a time that only she could decide,” her son Jérôme tells us.
Georgette left two short letters addressed to the State Attorney. The first, written by hand, explained that she “decided to take her own life.” The second, typed, is a formal complaint, accusing “the French state’s lack of respect of its citizens’ rights” when they want to “leave life serenely.”
Pills and two letters
Coincidentally, three days after the discovery of the Lutetia lovers' bodies, another elderly couple was found dead in Paris, following a joint suicide. Aged 84 and 81, the two retirees took their lives together, presumably by ingesting pills, in their apartment located in the Invalides neighborhood of the capital. Next to them, two letters: one explaining the act, the other for the “people to notify.”
What do these two double suicides represent among the 3,000 cases registered every year in France of people aged 65 or older taking their own lives? They are negligible, in statistical terms, but mean much more when it comes to symbolism. Leaving together, hand-in-hand, may say as much about elderly depression as about the right to be able to die with dignity. Premeditated for a few years, as it was for Bernard and Georgette Cazes, the act is also not exclusive to wealthy or intellectual classes.
In July 2007, in the small town of Saint-Rambert-en-Bugey, near the Alps, a couple escaped from a retirement home to throw themselves in front of a train. He was 81, and had started working as a typographer at the age of 12. She was 83 and had worked as a clerk before buying a bar and a hotel-restaurant with her husband. They never had any children and loved each other passionately.
But was the prospect of one dying before the other, as in the other cases, the only reason that led to their decision?
Right to die
Sorting out the reasons that can push someone to commit suicide is no easier when it is done in tandem. In September 2010, in the northern French town of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a couple of retirees were found dead in their car, with their 37-year-old disabled daughter. “Money and housing problems” were blamed.
But there is a particular risk in two people trying to die together: half succeeding. Last July, an 80-year-old man and his 84-year-old wife drove their car into a canal north of Paris. The woman died. The man was “saved.”
Claire Quilliot, wife of the former mayor of Clermont-Ferrand, also lived through such a dual attempt. One July evening in 1998, the couple lay down after ingesting pills and having sent letters to their children, as well as a message that the former mayor and French housing minister, 73, concluded with these words: “We have lived a long life. I don’t feel like being a mere spectator.”
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Resuscitated by paramedics, Claire Quilliot would make another attempt at suicide five years later. It failed again. And another in 2005 — which succeeded — by drowning in a lake, by then at the age of 79. She was part of the French Association for the Right to Die with Dignity (ADMD) and could not bear the idea of living without her husband’s “passionate love.”
This same kind of burning love was described by the philosopher André Gorz and his wife Dorine when they took their own lives aged 84 and 83 in September 2007, in their own house. Before disappearing, the essay writer had dedicated a book to his wife (Letter to D.: A Love Story), which he concluded in a premonitory way: “We both wish not to survive the death of the loved one. We told each other that if, who knows, there's a life on the other side, we would want to spend it together.”
Bernard and Georgette Cazes probably thought the same thing before heading upstairs to their room in the Lutetia. They too had always told loved ones they would choose their own time of death. “But," their son Jerome points out, "without ever specifying the date.”