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Whistling past the graveyard

"Whistling past the graveyard" Continued...

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

This 10th book of interviews by Chicago's Terkel is a grab-bag of the moving and the inane. He records his surprise: "You may be as astonished as I was, while scrounging around, to discover that we reflect on death like crazy much of our lives. The storytellers here, once started on the subject, can't stop." He offers an assessment: "Invariably, those who have a faith ... have an easier time with loss." In one interview, Pastor Tom Kok of the Peace Christian Reform Church describes "the feeling of peace" that members of his congregation have "as they face this great unknown," and he fills in a little of the unknown: "The Bible talks about a new Heaven and a new Earth. I tell my kids all the time, I'm looking forward to walking in the grass and playing baseball." But the book as a whole suggests that there are no objective answers.

Ira Byock, Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life

Dr. Byock, a physician who writes well, describes dramatic attempts at heart resuscitation in hospitals: "These were often literally dramatic: The actors knew the efforts were futile and for show." He shows that "physical pain among the terminally ill exists because doctors lack the will, not the way.... In the minds of too many people today, the answer to unbearable pain among the dying has become assisted suicide or euthanasia, as if effective pain treatment did not exist.... With strong resolve from patient and doctor, relief of physical suffering is always possible." He also understands that "suffering from personal, mental pain is a much more complex and thornier problem ... personal suffering hinges on what gives a person purpose or meaning." He strongly backs the hospice movement as providing quiet opportunities for reflection on purpose as well as reconciliation with family. But this excellent secular book still has no answers about how to be reconciled with God.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler, Life Lessons

Full of deep thoughts, such as, "Often, we don't recognize our goodness until the end of life. We need to remember that we are here to try to remember our goodness."

Virginia Morris, Talking About Death Won't Kill You

Mrs. Morris, a good writer, evocatively examines "the overwhelming sadness.... Whether we have finished our work or not, we don't want to leave the party.... Like the child who resists bedtime, we want to stay up and see what's going to happen." She wants us to contemplate ends so we can "begin the process of reclaiming death," but she sees how hard it is to avoid "gut-churning dread.... The idea of not existing in some way, shape, or form in the future is unnerving." Her ambition is to avoid the dread: "Dying well is about finding peace in the maelstrom." She sees from a utilitarian perspective the importance of "religious beliefs, when they are strong and an integral part of one's life," for they "help to make mortality and the process of dying more manageable." But is making death manageable the best we can do?

Stephen Prothero, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America

This solidly written history tells how we have moved from a first, much-criticized cremation in 1876, to having one-fourth of all corpses burned rather than buried. That is still far below the cremation rate of Japan (98 percent) or Great Britain and Scandinavia (65-70 percent), but it represents a major cultural change. Cremation took its biggest jump in popularity within the United States when it gained counter-cultural victory: "Funerals are extravagant, cremation is simple." Christians should not be hugely bothered by the trend-an omnipotent God can re-create a body whether burned or buried-but it seems to accompany tendencies to treat a corpse as a piece of meat rather than a temple of the Holy Spirit.

New Age approaches

Barbara Mark & Trudy Griswold, Heaven & Beyond: Conversations with Souls in Transition

Stories about messages from the dead: My favorite is from a woman whose father was active in the stock market. She reports, "One night I had a very vivid dream in which my father got right in front of my face. We were nose to nose and he kept saying to me, 'Buy AOL, buy AOL.' I remember saying in the dream that I knew nothing about stocks and had never invested in my life. He adamantly replied, 'Trust me. Buy AOL.' I knew better than to argue when he is in one of those moods even if he is on the other side. What was most interesting is that his stock tip came before the stock split and before there was any announcement of a merger with Time Warner. I bought the stock and am still holding tight. I wonder if his tip could be considered insider trading?" The woman did not say whether her dad came back later to advise, adamantly, "Sell AOL, sell AOL."

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