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Whistling past the graveyard

"Whistling past the graveyard" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002
  • Death as an opportunity for bravado: Virginia Woolf ended one novel, The Waves, with the words, "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" But she drowned herself in March, 1941. Journalist Cyrus L. Sulzberger argued in his mid-century book, My Brother Death, that "the manner of death is more important than death itself. Fine dying is a man's privilege, for that man can himself control." Science-fiction novelist Isaac Asimov declared his dislike for not only hell but heaven as well: "I don't believe in an afterlife, so I don't have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse."

These nine modern ways to look at death have produced as much long-lasting satisfaction as a piece of sugarless gum. Exploration is exciting, but to go without backpack, canteen, or pith helmet? Sleep derives its ease from the expectation of wakefulness on the morrow; if tomorrow were not expected to come, insomnia would skyrocket. Despite all the attempts, modern times present a history of deepening gloom when considering death.

The mood has worsened as the focus has changed from worry about dying to concern about nothingness. Early in the 17th century Francis Bacon wrote, "I do not believe that any man fears to be dead, but only the stroke of death." In the 18th century novelist Henry Fielding also emphasized the moment: "It is not death, but dying, which is terrible." Both writers could do that because they did not envision the eternal emptiness of death without afterlife. In recent decades, thoughts of annihilation have laid low many. In 1967 Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead transmitted eeriness: "Death is not anything.... It's the absence of presence, nothing more ... the endless time of never coming back ... a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound."

Attempts to ignore death have rarely succeeded. French author and filmmaker Jean Cocteau brooded in 1939, "Since the day of my birth, my death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying." British poet C.D. Andrews's work in the 1930s showed fatalism about fatality:

Like figures on an ancient clock,
Warrior, or saint, or clown
(All's one to the machine) that wake
When each stale hour is done,
And with preliminary whirr
Play their allotted role,
Stiffly advance, engage, retire
Trembling a little still,
So blandly nodding Death and I
Nearer and nearer march,
At the click of night and the click of day,
Click-clack! We approach, we approach!

So why publish books about such depressing matters? Essayist Susan Sontag was right in 1978 to note that, in our secular society, "death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied." Historian Geoffrey Gorer documented "an unremarked shift in prudery" in the 20th century, with sex going public and death becoming the great unmentionable. But now, as aging boomers slowly lose some interest in sex and can't stop thinking about tomorrow, the books on death are coming.

BOOKS SINCE '96

Have books published over the past half dozen years been able to come to grips with the Grim Reaper? Here's my look at secular, New Age, comparative religion, Jewish, and Christian books about death.

Secular approaches


Joanne Lynn & Joan Harrold, Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness

Those who are dying should embrace the "Four Rs for the Spirit"-remembering, reassessing, reconciling, reuniting-in order to improve relations with relatives and friends. That's all to the good, but the authors have nothing to offer those who want to make peace not only with man but with God. Even for those concerned only with earthly relationships, platitudes-"Often, we discover that what matters most are relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the world that surrounds us"-offer no help in prioritizing.

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying

Well-written stories of dying's pathos mix with an emphasis on psychological constructs. For example, the author refers to the "five major attacks of the devil" in ars moriendi warnings and notes haughtily, "We can, from the perspective of transpersonal psychology, conceptualize these 'attacks of the devil' as 'revelations of self.' Each attack of the devil can be seen as a highlighting of previously unrecognized and repressed parts of the self."

Studs Terkel, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith

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