STAEFA, Switzerland - The local zoning law permits only “quiet businesses” to operate in this affluent condominium complex high above the shores of Lake Zurich.

What could be quieter than death by a self-administered overdose of barbiturates?

But residents of Glaernisch Street were unhappy when they learned that an organization called Dignitas had rented unit 57B.

“Nobody wants to live next door to an apartment where you know somebody is going to die every day,” said Victor Koeppel, a retired geology professor who lives across the courtyard from 57B.

The new tenants moved into the apartment Sept. 13. The first death was recorded Sept. 18, and six more followed in daily succession until Sept. 26, when police, acting on neighbors’ complaints, arrived with an eviction notice that cited Dignitas for violating the local zoning code. For the second time this year, the group found itself out on the street.

Dignitas is a Swiss non-profit organization that helps people kill themselves. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, provided the assistance is passive. That means the person giving the assistance can supply the lethal drug but cannot administer the fatal dose or injection; the person wishing to die must be able to do it himself or herself.

Since its beginnings in 1998, Dignitas has helped more than 750 terminally ill people to their deaths. But Ludwig Minelli, the organization’s director and driving force, said that its philosophy has prevented a far greater number of suicides.

“Seventy percent of the people who have asked us for help never call again. They live on, without anxiety or fear, knowing that if their pain becomes too much, the exit is wide open,” he said.

Two other European countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, also allow assisted suicides, but only for their own citizens. In the U.S., Oregon passed a Death With Dignity law in 1997 that has since survived repeated legal challenges. Like Belgium and the Netherlands, Oregon restricts assisted suicides to residents.

Because Switzerland does not require residency, it has become the capital of “death tourism.”

Those who came to the apartment on Glaernisch Street to end their lives were from Germany, Poland, Italy and France. Among them was Maia Simon, a 67-year-old French actress suffering from terminal cancer. Before drinking the lethal cocktail of sodium pentobarbital, she sent a plea to President Nicolas Sarkozy urging the legalization of assisted suicide in France.

Someplace more isolated?

Koeppel, the neighbor, says he supports assisted suicide, but not in a residential area.

“Why wouldn’t you choose a more discreet location, someplace a little more isolated?” he asked. Or perhaps the anonymity of a big city, as others have suggested.

For seven years, Dignitas operated out of an apartment in Zurich, but eventually the other tenants became upset with the daily parade of body bags from their building. They pressured the landlord to terminate Dignitas’ lease in July.

Dignitas then tried using hotel rooms, but that infuriated Swiss hotel owners who banded together to threaten legal action.

Part of the problem is that each assisted suicide is treated as an unusual death. This means that in addition to the coroner, the mortician and others normally in attendance after a death, the police also have to investigate.

“As a neighbor, I can see everything from my garden,” said Margot Heyer, who lives next door to the Dignitas house on Glaernisch Street.

Death next door

Like others in the community, she is not opposed to assisted suicide, but she cannot get comfortable with the specter of death in such close and constant proximity.

“If they are carrying a coffin out of the house, I cannot keep drinking my coffee or chatting on the phone. I must show a certain respect, even if I did not know this person,” she said.

“You see the people arrive; you see their faces and you know that in a few hours they will be dead. I found myself constantly thinking of death. At my age, this is not so easy,” said Heyer, who is in her 60s.

Heyer and her neighbors point out that another group in Switzerland, called Exit, also helps the terminally ill end their lives, but it limits its assistance to Swiss nationals who wish to die at home.

“On the one hand, I think it is good that there are organizations like Dignitas and Exit. … Certainly it is more acceptable to have a humane suicide than to have these people jumping from bridges,” Heyer said.

“But it would be better if other counties also allowed this. Then it wouldn’t be such a problem in Switzerland,” she said.

Minelli is dismissive of the neighbors’ complaints.

“The only thing they fear is that their homes will diminish in value,” he said.

He also said he anticipated the negative reaction from Glaernisch Street residents but decided to move in because there were no better options.

“We searched for a place for three months. … The choice was to take it or close down,” he said.

Next venue: Cars

In the weeks after eviction, Dignitas has helped two German citizens end their lives in the grim privacy of their cars.

Newspaper editorials have called it “death on wheels,” while others have criticized the alleged lack of dignity in the parking lot deaths, but Minelli defended the practice.

“Whether it is dignified or not is not to be judged by outsiders,” he said. “These people told us they preferred to do it in their own car, not in a hotel room, so we had to respect this.”

Since then, Dignitas has been able to rent a space in an industrial zone near Zurich. The assisted suicides were resumed there late last month.

[Via - Sun Sentinel]

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