In Children of Men, what is the practice of Quietus?
P. D. James’s novel The Children of Men takes place in a bleak near-future in which worldwide infertility has completely halted birth rates and seemingly doomed humanity to imminent extinction. The “Quietus” is a state-run and supposedly voluntary mass suicide ceremony for citizens sixty and older. It functions as one of several policies implemented by the British government and its dictatorial leader, Xan—the “Warden of England”—in an effort to control the remaining population and conserve waning resources. The novel’s protagonist and Xan’s cousin, Dr. Theo Faron, witnesses a women’s Quietus in Book 1, Chapter 9 and is greatly disturbed by what he sees: elderly women, some of whom seem drugged, putting on white robes and boarding barges, to which they are then chained. The soldiers present will open the barges’ plugs and leave the women to drown at sea before returning to shore in their own boat. Theo recognizes one of the women as Hilda, the senile wife of his former mentor, Jasper; she tries to escape by running toward the beach. Theo rushes toward her to help, but a soldier kills Hilda before Theo can reach her. Theo himself is beaten into unconsciousness for attempting to interfere with the Quietus. It is the humiliation Theo feels in the wake of this personal attack that serves as the catalyst for his agreeing to aid the Five Fishes, a rebel group whose agenda calls, among other things, for Xan and his council to put an end to the Quietus.
In The Children of Men, childbirth has suddenly stopped; there are no more children being born and society is beginning to collapse as people believe that there is no future and no reason to continue living. One effect is mass suicides, described as a process called Quietus:
...Jasper said, "You've heard of the Quietus, I suppose, the mass-suicide of the old? ...there are people who like to make an occasion of these rites of passage. It's happening in one form or another all over the world. I suppose there's comfort in numbers, in ceremony."
(James, The Children of Men, Google Books)
Because there is no future for the human race, and because people feel they have little-to-no reason to continue living, the elderly are committing suicide as a ceremony, covered without judgement by news organizations. It turns out that many of the old people participating are drugged by the State, which is encouraging the Quietus to keep their economy viable; elderly people use up resources that the younger desire, and overall production is down because of the general malaise. Some citizens try to fight against the State-sponsored Quietus because they believe it is only a ploy to keep people under control, and because they do not believe that every person participating is doing so of their own free will.
In The Children of Men, "Quietus" refers to the state-sanctioned mass "suicide" by drowning. What superficially appears to be mass suicide, however, can be better described as mass homicide, since the elderly citizens who take part in it at or after the age of 60 are often coerced into doing so.
The Latin word "quietus" simply means at rest or a pause, but, in time, it became almost a euphemism for death, and its usage for suicide can be seen in Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act III, Scene I):
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time [...]
When he himself might his quietus make...
This was a somewhat unusual use of "quietus" since, before Shakespeare, it usually just meant "release from obligation": he uses it poetically to mean "release from life," and it is highly likely that P. D. James alludes to this usage in The Children of Men.
In the book, people age 60 or older are herded onto a ship, drugged, and then left to drown. It is forbidden to save them —we have evidence of this when the protagonist, Theodore Faron, is savagely beaten for attempting to rescue a Quietus victim. This event proves to be a breaking point for Faron and is responsible for much of the narrative action that follows.