Whistling past the graveyard

Books Special Report | With boomers graying and starting to ponder the end of their lives, here's an opportunity for publishers to get ahead of the curve and produce meaningful, challenging books. A look at what's already published shows death books that largely seek to wine and dine the dying or those left behind. But should Christian publishers dodge death? Someone needs to answer the question, How then shall we die?

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Baby boomers are moving from applauding the Grateful Dead to worrying about a graceless death, and their interests continue to push publishers. When the boomers were teething, Dr. Spock's guidebook seemed omnipresent. When some of them participated in late-1960s college protests, Charles Reich's The Greening of America topped the bestseller list with predictions of how this best of all generations would change the United States. When one of them exhibited, with Monica Lewinsky, the generation's notorious self-centeredness, anti-Clinton books sold big.

Now, as boomers turn the corner toward old age, books about views on death will emerge by the truckload. The soft rain already has begun, judging by the bestselling success of Tuesdays with Morrie, and by 25 other books on death and dying published within the last six years and sent me by publishers in response to my queries. But much of American culture still is "exhibiting a touch of, um, denial," as Newsweek noted about recent films that have had "death scenes airbrushed out of movies."

We try to avoid the pathos evident in Christina Rossetti's lovely 19th-century line, "And all the winds go sighing,/For sweet things dying." But since there is no exit from death, books about painkillers that ease dying's physical hurts will be hot, and even hotter will be works that can stop emotional pain from cutting as deep as a scalpel.

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What follows has three parts:

First, using two of the books and also numerous collections of sayings, I establish three baselines: pagan, medieval, and modern views of death over the past two centuries.

Second, I critique and give highlights from the other 23 books, which fall into five categories: secular, New Age, comparative religion, Jewish, and Christian.

Third, I discuss the Christian alternative, and propose ways for Christian publishers to get ahead of the curve. And one note to curious readers: My experience in research and writing this essay has been similar to that of one of the authors reviewed in what follows, Virginia Morris. She writes, "Once you overcome your initial repulsion for this subject, learning about death really isn't scary, depressing, or dangerous." She notes that "obsessing blindly about death is horrifying," but learning about it wakes us up "from the numbness of daily life. My petty quests-for a bigger advance ... whatever is on my mind that day-seems laughable." Suddenly, a kiss is not just a kiss, the wind in your face is something special, and even typing on a computer is vivid, important, and wonderful.

Mrs. Morris also notes a reason for most of the readers of this essay to keep going: "Hanging on the edge of a precipice, engulfed by terror, is not the time or place to learn about emergency rock-climbing procedures; you have to learn about them before you start the expedition. Likewise, we have to start learning about death now, while we are still healthy ... before we are blinded by denial and fighting valiantly for hope."


How did European pagans deal with death before they embraced Christianity? How did Christians surrounded by death during the Middle Ages think through the issues? How has our increasingly secular society over the last two centuries tended to view death?

Mike Parker Pearson, The Archaeology of Death and Burial

Mr. Pearson's book examines many ancient cultures, but the most fascinating pages of the book are the first two. He quotes a description of the funeral of a Scandinavian merchant in a.d. 921 or 922 (Christianity becomes the religion of Denmark in 960 and Kievan Rus in 988.) While the merchant's corpse waits in a wooden box, associates use a third of his wealth to make or purchase nabid, an alcoholic drink that they consume abundantly as part of a 10-day sexual orgy. A slave girl who is to be burned with the merchant also spends the time in drinking and promiscuous sexual activity.

On the 10th day the associates take out the corpse, clothe it in rich fabrics, prop it up with cushions, and surround it with nabid, fruit, meat, and other food. Many people play musical instruments as the merchant's relatives set up tents. The slave girl makes the rounds of the tents to have sexual intercourse with each of the relatives, who then announce loudly, "Tell your master that I have done the duty of love and friendship." The slave girl consumes more nabid and has intercourse with six more men. Then the six strangle her with a cord, while an old woman plunges a broad-bladed dagger between her ribs. The corpses of the merchant and the slave girl are burned.


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