Catalogue


The last passage : recovering a death of our own /
Donald Heinz.
imprint
New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
description
xxii, 296 p.
ISBN
0195116437 (cloth : alk. paper)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
isbn
0195116437 (cloth : alk. paper)
catalogue key
2513261
 
Includes bibliographical references (p. [269]-289) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Chapter One

The Dying and

Reviving of Death

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

--GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

La mort est a la mode.

--MICHEL VOVELLE

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

--T. S. ELIOT MEMORIAL IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY

INTRODUCTION

Until yesterday we died in medical Latin. A forgotten language obscured our passing. The primal scene was airbrushed by professionals who uttered words that could not be understood. Sterile gauze concealed the soul's departure, so that we did not remark on the passing of the light. Medicine did not measure metaphysics.

    Death had become a biological infection. It was not to be permitted to escape control centers. Failures at living were sent to the hospital's private places, hidden from public view and knowledge. In a postmodern society direct disposal was to be arranged, so that no one would be shamed by the excrement of death. The living could continue their tour with only the faint odor of disinfectant. We had decided not to know or even to sniff. Professionals scrubbed death's signifiers clean and quarantined its discourse. The wound of death was debrided, its lacerated metaphysics neatly removed. We consented to dramaturgically passive roles because compensations were promised. Honey-coated words such as casket (coffin) and coach (hearse) and park (cemetery) were used, and the undertaker's art promised as our souvenir a beautiful memory picture. No fear and trembling would be required.

    All this was necessary because of mortality's hair-trigger response to death words and dying people, which, unless good isolation techniques were practiced, could summon the malaise of finitude. If we voided death, if we abandoned the dying, we would escape facing the emptiness toward which we were heading. We eliminated intimations of mortality. But still they ran, as in great underground sewers, beneath our consciousness.

    Those who were mourning only dimly perceived the cruel trick played on them. We coaxed them out of their terrible sadness so that we could buy happiness. Bother not the living, we admonished. Modesty and good manners forbid public displays. Cry privately. Wear your despair at home. Widows' weeds intrude on public space. We congratulated ourselves for liberating grieving from vestigial mourning customs. Thoughtlessly celebrating the demise of such traditions, we sent the bereaved away, disinherited of cultural or religious bequests. Bewildered, they retreated to private pain and unaccompanied mourning. As soon as they mastered their grief through whatever private rituals they could scavenge, they emerged from confinement to invite compliments for their rapid recovery. We applauded premature closure and rejoiced that the voice of grief was so quickly stilled. If some few protested, they were muffled by a social contract in which grief is disallowed public expression in exchange for a triumphalist, death-free status quo.

    Children had to be shielded from death. They were educated in the American way of happiness. We taught them to avert their eyes from sorrow like monks averting their eyes from females; we turned their experiences away from tragedy; we expurgated mortality from their primers. Each morning they pledged allegiance to the untroubled pursuit of pleasantness. Learning to avoid death became a developmental task of the young. Death would wound their innocence and wither their pubescent bloom. Choosing to tell only stories that fence off the darkness, we kept innocent the child on our lap and the child inside us, protecting ourselves from both's unanswerable tears. We saved adolescence from such poetry as Gerard Manley Hopkins's:

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leaves, like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow's springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

    It was we, of course, who had to be protected. If we had chosen to address the claims of death and grief, they would have turned to confront us in our neediness. As unwelcome strangers, they would come to our cupboards and find them bare. Mortality was always threatening to engulf us; it slept with one eye open, watching us. So we decreed that no bells should toll, that mourning should be brief, private, and discreet, for the American way of not dying was our desperate prophylactic.

    Our blessing for the dead was the same as Russian Jewry's for the tsars: "May God keep them ... far away from us." Cemeteries were distanced or disguised. It was not always so. Marginalized in modern society, a convenient landscape for horror films, or a mostly unrequested ritual pause, the cemetery was once the noisiest, busiest, most animated, most commercial place in the rural or urban center. You could dance there, and not just with death. Sacred and profane came together, and so did the living and the dead.

    But unwelcome reminders shadowed the cultural repression of death. Nuclear holocaust was nearly beyond imagining, and we did our best to ignore those who insisted on visualizing it. We dressed the bomb in necessity or masculine posturing and looked away from its possible effects--or projected them onto distant lands and peoples. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war fortuitously healed over the wound of megadeath. Then we discovered that mortality is as unbound as terrorist threats, and as hard to protect against.

    Then the AIDS epidemic threatened us anew with brightly colored horror. AIDS was not the unimaginable, unrepresentable death of atomic vaporization. We were forced to look instead at countless individual deaths. AIDS provoked "a resurgence of the Middle Ages in our memory, our conscience, and our imagination." Beginning about 1983, we were dragged through a bazaar of deaths, as if in a bad dream in which sluggish feet try to escape but fail. The unexpected arrival of AIDS in a postmodern landscape that thought itself also postepidemic occasioned cultural reconstructions, altering public attitudes toward sex, disease, death, medicine, and politics. Apocalyptic and moralistic labelings about AIDS matched many misbegotten past attempts to make sense of death and disease, and were equally unsuccessful.

    Whether AIDS gets its cure or is willfully isolated from public consciousness, one reminder of mortality always remains. No one can look straight at the sun or at death, it is said. Death is an intensity that casts a dense shadow. The aging are these shadows. Today, they move through society not as those who have achieved fullness of life, but as dangerous reminders of the repressed trajectories of those younger than they. The aged have steadily lost place in the imaginal life of society. Entranced with limitlessness and youth, as many people as possible cling to an American exceptionalism that leaves old-world customs, ancient institutions, and the aged themselves behind.

    Society sees the aged, when it must, as perpetual mourners, carriers of mortality. Intercourse with them is shunned. All who can claim not to be aging must be protected, for the aging know good and evil; they have seen too much; they have forbidden knowledge. Like shamans who enter a trance state to recover the secret language they alone know, the aged, it is supposed, must speak among themselves a language of discovered death. But in public they are required to revert to a safer tongue, so as not to offend or to implicate others in unwelcome mysteries. "Being a widow is like living in a country where nobody speaks your language."

    Yet society finds a purpose for the elderly. They are assigned to do dying for the whole culture. Commissioning them, as it were, to go to war in its stead, society hopes to abolish universal conscription. Given a heavy assignment, the elderly carry the mortality of all outside the gate. Allotted low-grief deaths and commissioned to do most of the dying, they endure unremarked departures. Atrophied rites of passage and unelaborated rituals are their simple memorials. Better, they are encouraged to advertise "No services" in their obituaries, so that everyone else will suffer no obligations.

    Do the aging dimly perceive themselves victims of a cruel hoax played by a death-denying culture? No inquiries are made. They are contagious with death, and their one remaining social obligation is to disappear without questions. The benediction we ask of them is not to cast a shadow over the living. From hoary heads one last promise is extracted, that they not filter the sunlight. Unwelcome reminders of a common repressed destiny, they are cleaned from the attics of public consciousness and set by the curb for collection, or stored in warehouses at the edge of town, away from common premises, until it is reported they have died. Society has come to expect from them an early social death, in case their biological dying should tarry. It is thought that those who look into their eyes see darkness. Their eyes must not be allowed to call to the darkness within all. They depress the culture. The culture represses them. Convenient theodicies are purchased by removing from view those whose existence challenges easy meanings. With careful magic, a cultural facelift is accomplished. The aging were mirrors in which all glimpsed their mortality. Now it has been arranged that they should live in unreflective and unreflected communities. Nothing remains to mirror the deep lines of cultural anxieties.

    How has the dying of death come to pass? How did we come to think we could slay the dragon of mortality so easily? What made us think simply not pronouncing it would accomplish our end? "Just as the Jew, out of respect for the awesomeness of God, would not pronounce the name of Jahweh, so we find it difficult to bring the word death to our lips in the presence of its power. This is so because we are at a loss as to how to proceed on the far side of this word." Was the repression of death an adaptive response to changing cultural conditions, the best deal we could make in bad times?

RECENT HISTORY

It is said we live in the first death-free generation in history. (It is not clear what it means that today's children do, however, see over twenty thousand violent deaths on television by the time they are eighteen.) A typical family may go twenty years without suffering any death. Death has disappeared as an ingredient of primary socialization. Today a fifty-year-old has seen as much death as a twenty-year-old had in 1820. In former times one got to know nature and death early as childhood companions; the family could not intervene to protect a child from a profound and rapid socialization to death and dying. Between 1920 and 1973, the death rate for those age one to twenty-five decreased by 83 percent. For those age twenty-six to sixty-five, the death rate decreased by 40 percent.

    Premodern societies had to organize themselves around death's recurrent presence. In a small village, the sudden death of ten people in a flood, epidemic, or war was a public disaster. Death always creates a vacuum, but modern societies have learned how to insure against loss. If mostly the elderly die, the crisis is less acute. It is possible to mute the effect of death by reducing the importance of those who die. By disengaging the aged from the social system and locating them in a transition period on the way to death, modern societies enhance the continuity of institutional functions via the changeover of personnel. Permanent, autonomous social institutions that are effectively independent of the individuals who carry out roles within them are invulnerable to the depletion of personnel by death, for their bureaucratic functions are impersonal and transferable. In early societies, deaths that struck the family reverberated through the entire social structure. Now there are dikes against such tidal waves. Across the social system death has been transformed from a hovering menace into a remote prospect, insulated from everyday contact and sight, technologized into a system that seeks environmental mastery, and decontextualized from tradition.

    Yet while modern societies seem to have contained death, the individual is left more vulnerable than ever. "We have created systems which protect us in the aggregate from facing up to the very things that as individuals we most need to know." It may be that the greater the emphasis on individual distinctness and separateness, the more intense the anguish when the individual dies. Death's power is unabated for the individual, who faces it without significant mediating structures. The decline of churches, neighborhoods, and other forms of community has left individuals bereft of resources for constructing meaning and culture. Isolated individuals labor after meaning without a context of mutual endeavor and with little relation to living traditions. They stand alone against a world of powerful economic forces and bureaucratic institutions. Government, mass media, and business have taken control of the center, where life in community once flourished, and sucked it dry. The realm of rooted systems of meaning has been ceded to the powerful and the professional.

    A number of major shifts in Western cultural and religious traditions have contributed to the new situation in which the isolated individual faces death with scarce resources. The Enlightenment's hope for human improvement included a bias against tradition and history and a devout trust in science. But death did not lend itself to the Enlightenment agenda, nor did it fit the Enlightenment's mode of analysis. The "de-Christianization" of death in eighteenth-century France left a heritage still much with us among intellectual elites. At the dawn of that century elaborate means for death preparation were still in place. There were manuals on the art of dying, popular books, tracts, and catechisms that balanced fear and confidence. The practice of early contrition as a dying to self could lead to such a disengagement that actual death held little terror. It was a cultural expectation that toward the end of an active life, one began preparing for death. Some prayed the Office of the Dead as a penitential exercise. There was, of course, also continuing ritual participation in the death of others in the community of faith.

    But during the course of the eighteenth century there developed a truncation of religious phraseology in wills, a reduction of the number of masses for the testator's soul, a decline in the number of books of devotional preparation for the dying, the rise of lay confessors who specialized in a new, humanistic dying, and an accompanying moralization of funeral sculpture and epitaphs. Somber and demanding Catholic deathbed rituals were rejected, ideas of eternal punishment were ridiculed, and the cemetery was removed from proximity to the church. Usurping the emotions aroused by Christian liturgy were the sentimental and literary fashions of lonely grief. A cult of tombs became a substitute religion and nature the ideal environment.

    The dying of death in the United States between 1830 and 1920 can be traced to the impact of scientific naturalism, religious liberalism, and new death-related institutions such as life-insurance, natural-looking cemeteries, and professionalized funerals. Because it was contrary to nineteenth-century progressivism, death had to be redefined, assigned to specialists, and liberated from gruesomeness, thereby sparing society the public expression of incapacitating fears. Mourning was curtailed in duration and formality to prevent death from overshadowing life.

    Scientific naturalism provided the cosmology within which the dying of death could proceed. Scientific plausibilities were selected to meet social needs and presuppositions. Nature was called upon to replace religion as the locus of causality and the engenderer of interpretations of the meaning of life and death. When death became a natural process, attention shifted from the individual to the species. Life insurance replaced religion as the new (social) guarantor of the immortality of the human race. In the last half of the nineteenth century supernaturalist and vitalist definitions of death's meaning gave way to disease studies. In a speech to the National Funeral Directors Association, an enthusiastic physician heralded the new day when science, unencumbered by expressions of divine will and unshrouded by mystery, could look the causes of death squarely in the face. Two trends emerged: Death was merely natural and therefore acceptable, and death was merely a disease and therefore curable. As anesthesia removed pain and the necessity to discover therein punishment or compensation, death promised to become an easy sleep, like the falling of a leaf.

    All this gave modernity what Reinhold Niebuhr called an "easy conscience." We escape death's pathos by turning "from the daemonic chaos" of our spiritual lives "to the harmony, serenity and harmless unity of nature." Salvation lies in the descent "from the chaos of spirit to the harmony of nature." Such language is reminiscent of Buddhist spirituality. In the absence of that traditions depth and cultural location, however, it more likely represents an overeager escapism.

    The religious liberalism of the day wedded romanticism to scientific naturalism. Death became a romantic prelude to immortality, heaven a natural human progression. Death was the lawful act of an immanent God, not a curse or divine judgment. Clergy came to console, not admonish. Memento mori gave way to the soothing of survivors. Between 1836 and 1916 the Methodist funeral order, for example, maintained a delicate balance between fear and hope. After 1916, hope triumphed. The mercy of God and the assurance of everlasting life replaced God's power and wrath. Judgment, fear, and pain of death were eliminated in the 1920 reforms. With the triumph of religious tolerance, rationality, and universalism, hell declined in importance. One of death's bibliographers notes that the overtones of death stopped sounding.

SECULARISM AND THE DECLINE OF THE SACRED

The characteristic of modernity that has contributed most to the dying of death is the withering or repression of the symbols that could mediate the sacred. The modern person stands before death as Jung's famous patient stood before her existence: With no mythological language in her possession, she had no resources to tell her story. Today our primal myths are threadbare and powerless. Biblical cosmogony is replaced with hardheaded science. The royal pageantry that once bespoke mythic underpinnings is reduced to commemorative plates or mint editions. Our minds can no longer take in the whole picture. "A wanderer in search of mythological sources of power has to roam the world `like a dog sniffing out old bones.'" This intimates a crisis of secularity, that triumphant worldview epitomized by empirical observation, technical mastery, and scientific knowledge, in which the ascent of rationalism parallels the "disenchantment" of the world--the voguish term for a world set free of any religious or symbolic underpinnings. Conversation lags among the pallbearers who laid religion to rest. "Called or uncalled, God will be there" goes the old proverb Jung had engraved above his door.

    Formerly it was said that humans generated or discovered symbols as they sought bridges to another world. As they beheld such symbols, the sacred broke in. Through symbols they groped for the nature of things and encountered an overflow of Being. Symbols opened eyes wider, pushed the horizon back, affiliated the dead with the living. Symbols called to other worlds and fixed everyday life.

    But in recent times whole orbs of society and culture and personality broke loose from the gravity of sacred symbols. Symbol-generated meaning receded as secularization advanced. Unable to locate and name their being-in-the-world, moderns experienced a loss of direction in their living and in their dying. As the echoes of the sacred died out, they sensed themselves homeless in the cosmos.

    Many intellectuals, of course, profess no sense of loss, but rather self-congratulation at having rid themselves of dogmatism and religious mystifications. An anthology on religion and aging offers a wry comment on those who are well educated but undeveloped in their religious ideas and beliefs: "These persons appear to maintain a stylized stupidity, primitivity, naivete, or dull-wittedness in religious matters." For such intellectuals, religion is a "favorite and socially sanctioned area of stagnation, fixation, or regression." In the center of their civilized, cultured, sophisticated lives, there lies a deliberate wasteland of underdevelopment.

    Once rituals enacted sacred order, and myth told our stories. Now the irrelevance of rituals is announced; they are debunked as empty and meaningless. The emperor has no clothes, the cynics smirk. Sophomores are suddenly wise. Liberation means freedom from ritual's constricting bonds, escape from the weight of uncongenial tradition. As ceremonies lost social space and public truths to tell, humans began to die private, culturally naked deaths.

    Ritual and symbol had marked a space where one could look upon darkness, address evil, confess sin, face death. It was possible to name the secret without being engulfed by it. Now death and darkness are not addressed, but banished. Fluorescent lights burn all night in safe houses where the darkness cannot seep in. With little ballast left, people bear their finitude unsteadily and notice mortality only in passing glances. In their grief, for which the words are lost, the new homeless ransack nearly effaced symbols and look for meaning in seagulls or oceanic consciousness. Society and culture come to be disenchanted with a disenchanted world. The new surrogates for religion--language purified of metaphysical alloy, ersatz symbols disconnected from sacred power, commercial distractions, vain promises from the sciences, cultural remnants from which all traces of the Other are effaced--all these were no match for battles fought by night. Death itself would have to die to ensure peace in our time.

    The religiosity that survived was often tended by uncertain acolytes. Post-Reformation derby found their role increasingly secularized. The sacred symbols centered in rites of passage were in ruins. With the great system of sacred symbols broken or their power largely removed, the authority inherent in the cloth disappeared: "God's vicars need his signs to make manifest what it is that they and He are." Protestant reform purged the vivid and sensuous ceremonies that could capture the imagination of individuals and society. "The Protestant minister, weakly arrived with an anemic liturgical apparatus and devitalized spiritual imagery, has had his spiritual power reduced; the reinforcement of visual drama often needed to make his words significant to his congregation has been taken from him. He is often reduced to the use of verbal symbols, now impoverished by the debilitating effect of two centuries of science."

INDIVIDUALISM AND THE LOSS OF A SOCIAL WORLD

Once, as the Christian lay dying, church bells tolled and last prayers were promptly said. People who saw a priest carrying the viaticum, the last sacrament, through the streets immediately fell in step in a procession to the house of the dying. At the deathbed, the dying person held forth and last farewells were said. It was a public death, and the corpse kept its social engagements. Clocks were stopped, mirrors turned to the wall, black cloth thrown over pictures. Three blows were given to each wine barrel in the cellar. If the deceased lived near a windmill, the sails might be stopped in the form of a cross. A vigil was kept around the corpse that night, candles lit, holy water sprinkled, news sent around by bellman or placards. Finally came a procession from the house to the church, sometimes touring the town on the way, and finally to the cemetery.

    Today the symbols found in such a social world have atrophied; the capacity to imagine such connections is gone; the truth of such a public life is unavailable. In today's social world religion, family, and work are projects for the expression of self rather than activities of objective social and ethical value. Well-being and happiness are defined in individualized and abstract terms and not in relation to cultural and religious practices. When ancient Romans or medieval Christians took time off from work, it was not to go away by themselves or with their families, but to participate in communal celebrations. Such holidays might have taken up a third of the year, including civil commemorations, religious festivals, and saints' days.

    The loss of a social world also means the end of the interpenetration between the worlds of the dead and of the living. Today, the world the dead enter is not a world in which the living participate. Communion between the two has been severed. A larger reality that includes both worlds and holds them together is lost from sight. Formerly, meaning flowed freely between the living and the dead. Now even the dying--to say nothing of the dead--are often isolated from contact with the living. Once the sacred hung low over the world of the dying, giving special poignancy to their destination. Now no sacred world beckons.

    This is my argument: Individualism and the loss of a social world incapacitate us because they leave us isolated and without the resources to confront great mythologized issues such as death. We lose our ability to ritualize, which is a communal activity. This leads us to repress death, because we lack communities of meaning adequate to face and embrace it. Thus we lose a death of our own, but death remains, erupting in rearguard actions in our obsessions and compulsions and in cultural neuroses.

    In a climate of individualism we lose both the capacity to symbolize society and the meaningfulness of action in the public sphere. We have to fight for urban public space to "be in." We lose the insight that our bodies are "natural symbols" that carry larger social meanings and are transparent to communal meanings. Our ability to posit reality in unseen things declines in a capitalist, secular, urban culture. The public self, set in webs of cultural meanings and social roles, becomes inferior to the authentic private self. Hence, private wealth and public squalor. Meaning is measured psychologically. The barriers of custom, manners, and gesture are stripped away because they stand in the way of frankness and openness. People author their own character, and the self is the sole social principle. Celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor argue in court for the exclusive rights to their own lives, which they have turned into movies.

    Living a healthy existence in community requires just the "habits of the heart" we have come to lack. We are losing the social capacity for commitment to one another. Once family life, religious traditions, and participation in local endeavors such as politics or education were the glory of the American experiment. One of the keys to the survival of free institutions is the relationship between private and public life, and the ability of citizens to find meaning in both spheres. An older "social realism," common to biblical and republican traditions, saw society as real as individuals, produced a moral ecology of shared meanings and commitments, kept alive a language of public moral discourse, and produced a public good that exceeded the sum of private benefits.

    In the face of cynicism about all institutions, from government to schools to churches to unions, we lose the knowledge that life is lived in and through social entities. Better institutions are essential if we are to lead better lives. But we do not even recognize the value--and certainly not the indispensability--of institutions. We forget that the common good is the pursuit of the good in common. Instead, we have made independence and self-reliance the stellar virtues. "American individualism demands personal effort and stimulates great energy to achieve, yet it provides little encouragement for nurturance, taking a sink-or-swim approach to moral development as well as to economic success." A misconceived independence becomes an adolescent virtue that crowds out adult virtues such as care and generativity. Yet "real freedom lies not in rejecting our social nature but in fulfilling it in a critical and adult loyalty, as we acknowledge our common responsibility to contribute to the wider fellowship of life."

    How does this rampant individualism rob us of a death of our own? After individualism replaced religion as an all-embracing principle of meaning, after religion in the United States was banned from telling public truths and the commons cleared of religious symbols, after public life lost its grounding in transcendent systems of meaning, we lost death itself. When it becomes impossible to visualize a good society in which people join together to face the great questions, the ritual union of the living and of the dead surely seems out of reach. Facing death should be an invitation to encounter a common mortality, to discover a mutual dependence that encourages the pursuit of qualitative and not merely quantitative goals. The harrowing questions about life and death are everyone's questions. The supposition that all are interested only in outdoing each other in wealth and fame is hollow. "Such competition is a derivative from rather than a cause of a sense of desperation and meaninglessness in a culture that isolates and abandons people in dealing with the enigma of death." Death invites a move beyond the competitive individualism that requires the denial of death. "The portrait of the individual as a definitive whole who creates his own wealth and welfare through his own initiative and industry dissolves in the recognition, in the face of death, of how fragile is our existence and how much it is by the ministrations of others that we both live and die." But contemporary culture discourages this awareness. The pursuit of wealth beyond necessity requires a flight from limits and community. Individual economic health is purchased at the price of social, psychological, and spiritual health.

    If we cannot reclaim a sense of community, if public truths are dead, if modernization has left in its wake only powerful bureaucratic structures that depersonalize and no mediating institutions that humanize, if the individual and the nuclear family do in fact stand alone without recourse to public meaning or sacred space, the repression of death may seem adaptive rather than maladaptive, the only course available.

    New cultural definitions of death and dying had to arise. Death is first desocialized and then domesticated, because private and isolated selves face it alone. Professionals are hired to tame its power. Rituals can no longer mediate death if they lose their sacred power and context. The understanding that ritual is participation in expressive social action that connects to larger truths is lost. Public life once was a kind of ritual. But the claim of individual personality intruded on that of the public domain, and ritual became mere self-expression. When ritual still claims to mediate a public world, a sacred sphere--the world of the dead, a "calling" to public life, a genuine university or medical "community" marriage as a sacrament larger than two self-actualizing individuals--its promises appear incomprehensible. Where alienation from the public commons is strong, nothing further is expected or deemed possible. Unable to believe in larger meanings, society sidelines ritual.

    And faces death alone. Grief becomes an embarrassing private trauma. Other private selves join in the conspiracy to deny its reality or isolate its impact. The nuclear family stands alone, bearing asocial grief and seeking speedy disposals of the body and of mourning. Death rites are held only if the family requests them. If so, they are purchased from and provided by professionals. Isolated from the sacred, adrift from community and ritual, the family faces death hiding its pain and seeking little solace in others.

    Could we overcome our captivity to individualism and recover a social world? The French humanist Andre Malraux in his writings beautifully portrayed individuals in vital contact with one another. An isolated prisoner keeps hearing knocks, which he is eventually able to decipher as saying, "Comrade, take courage." At a dangerous moment in their civil war, Spanish peasants come together, shining lights to illuminate a landing strip. Malraux believed that humans who join together in a common quest have access to regions they could never reach if left to themselves. Nobility lies in the ensemble.

    Death will resist denying. Its sacral power and its terrifying mystery will haunt us. We must seek new institutions, cultural forms, and religious symbols that allow and encourage us as individuals `to come together to respond to death and mortality. Some imaginative entry into public space, some recovery of the sacred through ritual might be able to form in individuals a world of connections, of the spirit, of larger meaning capable of encompassing death.

    Whether religious communities could contribute to a revival of public life is a question neglected until recently. Whether some religious worldview could ever again undergird a common public life is still another question, and one unlikely to be answered in the affirmative. The efforts of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalisms to do just that by equating public life with politics do not look promising. Public life cannot be created by government. The religious symbol of covenant is, in fact, a master symbol for public life? It is a life tested by the treatment of strangers, one in which intimacy cannot be the only prevailing value, and where the spiritual quest must take on social dimensions. Public life has been replaced by life subject to the state or to colonization by neocapitalism and by an obsessive and fearful private life. The triumph of the therapeutic, the apotheosis of psychological man, reflects an aspiration to a completed identity independent of any public life. What society needs, however, is a therapy of public life, rather than balm for private pain. Feminism offers a promising example and suggests that there can be educations for public life that socialize us to be supportive of and accountable for one another. But the road ahead is clouded with false alternatives and the deceptive promises of science.

THE MEDICAL MODEL OF DEATH

The radical individualism I have lamented has, it must be admitted, provide resources to counteract the medical model of death I am about to decry. For the last three decades the trend in bioethics has been to argue for individual rights against the hegemony of scientific medicine and the all-knowing paternalism of doctors. So the federal Patient Self-Determination Act requires hospitals to inform patients of their rights. Bioethics became a thicket for "our last quest for responsibility." By the end of the millennium a medical right to physician-assisted suicide will probably have been established, primarily as a hedge against a runaway high-tech medical model and in continuity with a prevailing legal and philosophical mentality that privileges the rights of individuals. The Hemlock Society and other groups have fought for such a right, and Hemlock's founder, Derek Humphry, has provided a best-selling self-help manual, Final Exit .

    Good reasons are easily found for the continuing domination of death by a medical model. New medical abilities and accomplishments keep arriving at a bewildering rate. The great technological capacities to deny death its moment or significantly postpone its arrival have awakened the tantalizing idea that death might not be inevitable, or at least that it could be tamed by subsuming it under the paradigms of science.

    Beginning in the eighteenth century, an objectivizing practice of pathology has achieved success in locating death precisely, sited death in the body, and taken the first significant steps toward somaticizing and clinicalizing death. Medicine, science, and modernity came together in a way that focused on bodily, anatomical space, readily manipulable, to the detriment of social space. Social and cultural meaning was displaced by biology--itself, of course, a cultural product.

    The recent evolution of the sociology of medical knowledge is telling. Over the last two centuries technical, scientific understandings of death have replaced magical, moral, and religious understandings. In Foucault's words, the empirical gaze has succeeded in objectifying the patient. As a subject for scientific investigation, death became intelligible, uniform, predictable. "How?" replaced "Why?" as the leading question, and death became an impersonal, technical matter or a failure of technology. While massively redirecting the course of human and social behavior, medicine pretended to be morally neutral.

    Recall the story of the drunk who was discovered looking for his lost key under the streetlight. He had actually dropped it a block away, but, he reasoned, the light was better where he was looking. Unlike death, sickness can be defined, managed, and cured under the streetlight of science. Therefore cultural attention is shifted to sickness. Tamed sickness substitutes for untamed death. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross began her research into death and dying, the large hospitals she approached always told her that they had no dying patients. But repressed death images are inevitably assigned to the sick anyway, and they are no gift. Societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries loaded tuberculosis and cancer with entire syndromes of negative images which then came to define the bearers of these diseases. AIDS is the new vehicle for such off-loading. Society displaces or projects onto the gay community the repressed and frightening images of death it lacks the resources to face head on.

    Redefining death as sickness allows a professionalized death system. The mystery of death is handed over to medical science, which offers to demystify it by turning it into something controllable. The advice comes down: Trust your doctor. But studies often suggest that physicians are more anxious about death than the general population. Perhaps they enter medicine to control death and lessen their own fears; the choice of medicine may be a reaction formation, a response to an unconquerable childhood anxiety. All the more, then, does the dying patient represent a loss of power and control for the physician, who may withdraw or become hostile or impersonal. The scientific ethos of medical school desensitizes future physicians to the symbolic fullness of death and dying in order to equip them for heroic battles they can win.

    As the nemesis of medicine, death is greeted with "therapeutic passion," and the patient is overlooked in the physician's "clinical gaze." Formerly, mythical language about immortality or finitude hovered over the exchange between physician and patient. Now the scientific mind-set prevails. Or does it? Godlike, the physician hurls thunderbolts at the advancing enemy. The charisma granted the physician is not merely the serf-aggrandizement of the medical community. A secular society finds in the physician the new priest it longs for. Garbed in the divine privileges of scientific medicine and not averse to Promethean posturing, the physician comes to patient and family, who weakly protest such privilege but inwardly call for and ascribe unbounded power. Enter the shaman and the dance of death performed for extravagant fees. "The religious use of medical technique has come to prevail over its technical purpose, and the line separating the physician from the mortician has been blurred. Beds are filled with bodies neither dead nor alive. The conjuring doctor perceives himself as a manager of crises.... He plans self-defeating strategies and commandeers resources which in their uselessness and futility seem all the more grotesque." The modern person has lost the ability to recognize when death's time has come and must wait for the priest-physician to will it. Expenditures once lavished on tombs are now expended on terminal care. No one is to die without extensive medical assistance, the new rite of passage. For those who do not want such interventions, state ballot initiatives promote the right to be terminated professionally, and hospices offer mitigation. Meanwhile, few call into question the medicalization of dying, which creates this modern problem.

    The sacred space for these rituals is the modern hospital. Dying has moved from a moral to a technical domain. Death in an intensive care unit is ubiquitous, yet somehow concealed. Of course, "lost" patients can only dwindle. This is not the place for a last stage of growth. The passing of a person, the possibility of self-transcendence, cannot be measured with sophisticated equipment. Nor can nurses tethered to technology cross the line into such territory. Technical competency replaces fear and trembling.

    Added to the shortcomings of a scientific paradigm is the corporation-driven character of modern medicine. How many hospital admissions did the doctor generate? How many of the available beds were used every day? How many tests and procedures were ordered? It is a world in which only doctors can order the admissions that fill the hospital beds and use the hospital as a highly profitable second office to generate fees. It is a world in which health maintenance organizations increasingly dominate physicians, patients, and hospitals. It does not bode well for the dying patient that the coming decades will see turbulent conflict--among physicians, between physicians and hospitals, between medical care providers and insurers, between all of them and government. There is a struggle over dying, but it will be a corporate and political struggle over the allocation of resources.

THE PRESENT DILEMMA

Death reduced to disease may be producing a contagion of public sickness and private malaise. Death repressed in the service of happiness returns to shadow human pursuits. To quote Simone Well's enigmatic phrase, "The absence of the dead is their way of appearing." The interdiction of death does not promise peace in our time. The connection is broken between life and death, between the present and the continuity of life, between people. "Death equivalents" keep returning to haunt a culture that turns its face away from the perennial questions of death and continuity. Psychic numbing, death-denying stunts, and gangland bravado are behaviors invulnerable to death. The violence of popular culture has the (repressed) voice of death. Depression in the face of a death that will not die is a curious organismic imitation of death. Desperately seizing penultimate values is the distraction and denial chosen as a final detour before entering the inescapable tunnel. Suppressed death imagery breaks out and threatens to overwhelm life's projects. The suppression of death occasions the suppression of life.

    Humans have been losing their own dying, giving their death away to empty lives. With no definitive form, the last passage becomes a lost passage . A life heading nowhere loses its depth dimension. Yet mementos of the repressed consciousness keep appearing like dead birds on the doorstep, a disgusting transgression of our suburban yard. The undisguisable debris of death litters our paths and, more, our nights. Carl Jung wrote: "But when one is alone and it is night and so dark and still that one hears nothing and sees nothing but the thoughts which add and subtract the years, and the long row of disagreeable facts which remorselessly indicate how far the hand of the clock has moved forward, and the slow, irresistible approach of the wall of darkness which will eventually engulf everything you love, possess, wish, strive, and hope for--then all our profundities about life slink off to some undiscoverable hiding place, and fear envelops the sleepless one like a smothering blanket."

    Writers and poets come as nuntii mortis , messengers of finitude. We look to poets to name the gods and to deconceal reality--to see what we are looking away from. Some beckon to other ways of being in the world than isolated individualism. Maxine Kumin's is a poetry of attachment, preservation. She envisions a living and a dying that are reconnected to the dead, to the not yet born, to every neighbor. In "The Envelope" she writes:

It is true, Martin Heidegger, as you have written,

I fear to cease, even knowing that at the hour

of my death my daughters will absorb me, even

knowing they will carry me about forever

inside them, an arrested fetus, even as I carry

the ghost of my mother under my navel, a nervy

little androgynous person, a miracle

folded in lotus position.

Like those old pear-shaped Russian dolls that open

at the middle to reveal another and another, down

to the pea-sized, irreducible minim,

may we carry our mothers forth in our bellies.

May we, borne onward by our daughters, ride

in the Envelope of Almost-Infinity,

that chain letter good for the next twenty-five

thousand days of their lives.

In his poem "Belief," Philip Levine captures our honest ambivalence as we struggle between what we want to believe and what we fear we know. Through the recurring motif "No one believes" he manages to assert by denying:

No one believes that to die

is beautiful, that after the hard pain

of the last unsaid word I am swept

in a calm out from shore

and hang in the silence of millions

for the first time among all my family

and that the magic of water

which has filled me becomes me

and I flow into every crack and crevice

where light can enter.

There are heartrending connections between moving toward death and the larger ebb and flow of meaning. In "Spindrift" Galway Kinnell sees an old man's ambivalence about the elapsing time that brings his end, because "everything he loved was made of it."

    The pastor of a church in northern California suggested the Easter sunrise service be held in a cemetery one year, instead of at the usual tawdry drive-in theater. The church members were horrified and refused. But in Los Angeles a Moravian trombone choir marches through a cemetery on Easter morning playing old hymns. Those who are attentive may find ways to improvise new cultural scripts.

THE CONTEMPORARY REVIVAL OF DEATH

In August 1970 Psychology Today invited its readers to participate in a survey on death and dying. Thirty thousand responded. A survey on sex had drawn the previous highest response, twenty thousand readers. Was this a sign of the reviving of death, an urge to speak out on a forbidden topic?

    Books on death and dying began to appear in the mid-1960s. The great bestseller was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying , which appeared in 1969 and has continued to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Kubler-Ross soon became the patron saint of the death awareness movement. In her book she recorded her work with dying patients and described the resistance of the medical community to her work. Her most famous contribution was her stage theory. From her experiences with the dying she concluded that the dying person typically moves through five stages, from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance. Acceptance, and the potential growth connected to it, became a well-known goal, which Kubler-Ross thought appropriate for every dying patient. She began calling for the rejection of a lonely, mechanical, dehumanized environment for the dying and for recovery of a cultural willingness to listen to them, humanize their surroundings, and become students of their teaching. In this way, humans could develop a proper response to the dying and to their own mortality. The work of Kubler-Ross has been enormously influential, especially within the nursing profession, in the hospice movement, and among advocates of alternative spiritual approaches to death and dying.

    Already in 1979, a bibliographer concluded that death was a very badly kept secret, that 750 books were already asserting that we were ignoring it. Another bibliographer, in 1991, strove to identify, classify, and evaluate a bewildering variety of death analyses and to provide an introduction to death's past before seeking wisdom about its future--lest readers assume it was a new discovery in the late twentieth century. Did this proliferation of literature constitute a return to the good old days? Consider: "A narrative poem on death, The Day of Doom , was the first best-seller in America. First printed in 1662, it was a broadside of over 200 doggerel verses on death, doom, and judgment. The pamphlet was literally read to pieces in Puritan New England."

    A French historian in 1976 believed he was observing, in the sudden flurry of publications, nothing less than the displacement of a deeply held taboo on a subject that had stayed hidden since sometime in the nineteenth century. The work of Gorer, Feifel, and Aries in the 1950s and 1960s signified a turning point in Western sensibility to death comparable to that which occurred during the twilight of the Enlightenment. The literature appearing after the 1950s marks "the outer boundary of an era in which death was hidden in a veil of silence and secrecy, banished to the darker regions of everyday consciousness and repressed in a deliberate act of denial." The deconcealment of death was under way: " La mort est a la mode ."

    The revival of death was unanticipated, and its impact on American culture is even now unmeasured. Factors underlying this shift can be identified. Mass death in recent history and unthinkable death on a nuclear horizon that threatened the species with a common epitaph had sedimented into a fin de siecle consciousness. The evolution of modern medical science and technology, especially the pronounced accomplishments of recent decades, also contributed. The shifting of the location of dying to health care institutions for nearly 80 percent of those who die in the United States attracted public attention to that locale, as have transplant capabilities and the technology of life support. Out of the miracle and the coercion of modern medicine came patients' bills of rights, living wills, durable powers of attorney for health care, renewed interest in euthanasia societies, and public scrutiny of the veil of privilege and mystery that medical associations had successfully drawn around the practice of medicine. A demographic evolution, chiefly indebted to accomplishments in public health and nutrition, made the presence of the elderly in ever larger numbers a pressing social fact. Nursing homes nagged at the public conscience, and the politically active elderly, above all through the American Association of Retired Persons, demanded public attention.

    A "new consumerism" led to devastating critiques of the funeral industry. Jessica Mitford bitingly attacked the American funeral industry for profiteering on the grief-stricken by marketing expensive goods and services to a captive audience under great stress. She ridiculed the elaborate treatment and display of the corpse and questioned much of the funeral ritual itself. She found the normal American funeral irrational. Above all she lampooned embalming:

The corpse is in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged and neatly dressed ... transformed from a common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture. This process is known in the trade as embalming and restorative art, and is so universally employed in the United States and Canada that the funeral director does it routinely without consulting corpse or kin. He regards as eccentric those few who are hardy enough to suggest that it might be dispensed with. Yet no law requires it, no religious doctrine commends it, nor is it dictated by considerations of health, sanitation, or even personal daintiness. In no part of the world but in North America is it widely used. The purpose of embalming is to make the corpse presentable for viewing in a suitably costly container; and here too the funeral director routinely, without first consulting the family, prepares the body for public display.

    College and then high-school classes began making field trips to mortuaries, consumers came to look over physicians' shoulders, new journals devoted to thanatology appeared, books flooded the market, courses were developed, grants funded. Certainly by 1970 a death awareness movement began to establish itself. There followed concerns for doing it right, moving beyond a "We covered death today" approach. Twelve goals were proclaimed in an article entitled "Death Education":

1. Gently remove the taboo aspect of death language so students can read and discourse upon death rationally without becoming anxious.

2. Promote comfortable and intelligent interaction with the dying as human beings who are living until they are dead.

3. Educate children about death so they grow up with a minimum of death-related anxieties. Anxieties are too often based upon irrationality and myth rather than fact.

4. Assist the individual in developing a personal eschatology by specifying the relationship between life and death.

5. Perceive the health-care giver as a professional and human being, neither omnipotent nor omniscient, who has an obligation to give competent and humane service, attention, and information without mendacity to the dying and their families.

6. Understand the dynamics of grief and the reactions of differing age groups to the death of a "significant other."

7. Understand and be able to interact with the suicidal person.

8. Understand the role of those involved in what Kastenbaum and Aisenberg call the "death system" and the assets and liabilities of that system.

9. Educate consumers to the commercial death market.

10. Recognize that war and other holocausts are related to feelings of personal immortality and omnipotence. War might be avoided if we realize that it may be ourselves or our children who Would be killed or mutilated as well as an amorphous "enemy."

11. Recognize the variations involved in aspects of death both within and between cultures. Death means different things to different people.

12. Know the false idols and mythology existing in the growing field of thanatology, the salient heuristic questions, and the great need for research.

    College courses in the early 1970s tended in three directions: death as a personal phenomenon; examination of the sociocultural aspects and effects of death; and a limited study of singular aspects of death, such as self-destructive behavior, religion, and funeral practices.

    Undoubtedly, the hospice movement became the best-known institutional manifestation of the reviving of death. Dr. Cicely. Saunders's St. Christopher's Hospice in England, founded in 1967, is everywhere seen as the mother of the modern movement. The first American hospice was established in 1973 in New Haven, Connecticut. By the early 1990s there were hundreds of hospices throughout the United States. The movement embodies central concerns of the death and dying movement. A rigid medical model of dying is challenged; caring replaces curing as a fundamental treatment modality. Pain management medications that preserve alertness for a death of one's own but end the cycle of fear and acute pain are pioneered. Holistic approaches to patient and family dominate. The hospice has become a multidisciplinary community of care, with strong reliance on volunteers, thus recovering some of the social support and sense of community so conspicuously absent in much American dying. The movement has been called "high-person and low-tech." Hospices offer bereavement counseling during dying and also after the death of the patient. In a relaxed, cheerful, and homey atmosphere the patient is encouraged to "own" death and dying. "Dying badly" because of inappropriate medical interventions or lonely terror is eliminated. Often the hospice workers can assist the dying person to return home and die there amidst family support.

    Following widespread celebration of the arrival of a death awareness movement, there came cautions. There were warnings about death voyeurism in intrusive field trips and interviews; death exhibitionism by caregivers who like to display their patients; stage theories of dying that become prescriptive; hospices becoming death ghettos of fragmentation, overspecialization, and discontinuity in health care; smothering dying patients into overdependency; personality cults surrounding movement leaders. Inevitably, one of the proliferating textbooks on death and dying asked already in 1982 whether all this was the result of reformation or reaction formation.

    If death was to enjoy more than a modest revival, it would need staging from within traditions richer than many close at hand. What would they be? The muckraking of Jessica Mitford and others wanted to eliminate guilt-ridden extravagance, but apparently only by reducing human passages to discount rituals and dead-in-the-morning-and-gone-by-noon bargains. A far richer approach is seen in the Jewish Talmud:

Formerly, they used to bring food to the house of mourning, the rich in baskets of gold and silver, the poor in baskets of willow twigs; and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was instituted that all should use baskets of willow twigs....

Formerly they used to bring out the deceased for burial, the rich on a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets, the poor on a plain bier; and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was instituted that all should be brought out on a plain bier....

Formerly the expense of the burial was harder to bear by the family than the death itself, so that sometimes they fled to escape the expense. This was so until Rabban Gamaliel insisted that he be buried in a plain linen shroud instead of cosily garments. And since then we follow the principle of burial in a simple manner.

At its most idealistic, Judaism enfolds "a plain pine box" and a simple burial with a rich tradition of communal ritual, prayer, and nurture. A Christian example is seen in the funeral of Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, of whose coffin it was said: "The beautiful pine casket in which Dorothy Day's body lay ... was so strikingly apt that it shocked one into consciousness of the incongruity of most coffins. It served so aptly the plain simplicity, grace, discernment, insight, honesty, directness, dignity of that great woman's remarkable life and ministry. The body was the sign, not the casket, and yet the casket communicated a craft and showed a care befitting its servant role."

    Fortunately, the revival of death was accompanied by the unlooked-for reawakening of religion. The eclipse of the sacred that had seemed an assured legacy of secular societies was coming under reexamination during the 1960s. In the early decades of the twentieth century many leading sociologists expected that by the year 2000 religion would have disappeared, replaced by a secular, scientific worldview. That expectation and the two centuries of Enlightenment thought that led up to it continued to have a profound effect on the denial of death, or on the tamed death permitted to arise. It remained an open question whether discoveries of death as a new peak experience, the retrieval of historic religious traditions, or the emergence of new alternatives would come to prevail.

A CALL FOR MORE

We began with death concealed in a forgotten language. It may now be asked whether death is again allowed to speak in the vernacular. But that question must be sharpened. Does the turn from an evasive, secularized, individualized, and medicalized language to the coinage of contemporary culture promise a more authentic mediation of death and dying? It is not certain that the lingua franca of the late twentieth century--beautiful, therapeutic, romantic, spiritual, banal, and above all psychological--gives death its due. If so, our humanity and our living and dying will remain slighted. The cultivation, again, of the awareness of death may require difficult spiritual disciplines, not just psychological uncoverings. What death awareness will mean may depend on what visions of the good life such spiritual disciplines proffer.

    We have clearly entered a second phase of our recovery of death. First, death was deconcealed and rediscovered. Then we began reappropriating it. But we have remained "largely unaware of the degree to which captivating trends of popular cultural images determine our attitudes toward death." The thus far unfulfilled second phase could be the one in which we move beyond the twin responses of concealment and obsession. The problem began to change as we became conscious of it. We now have the chance to move beyond institutional reflexes and responses and generate prescriptive moves. They should include a rediscovery of the moral component in questions about death and dying--and not a morality limited to the uncritical enthusiasms of recent psychology.

    The translation from obscurantist Latin to the human-potential language of a good death, for example, may facilitate progressive attempts to avoid psychological maladjustment and still, with determined optimism, refuse to look death in the face. Behind contemporary enthusiasms may lurk new commercializations and professionalizations to replace the physician's and the undertaker's profit making. The continuing inattention to the funeral, except in the form of consumerist critique, and the almost complete lack of interest in reimagining rites of last passage do not bode well. "Funerals are custom-made only in the same sense that automobiles are, and the price we pay for paying our last respects in the American way of death is the price of our personality, which we have purposely withheld from the funeral. By our passive role in directing our funerals, we have transformed an important rite of personal passage into an impersonal rite of impassivity." As attention to the funeral lags, so even more does any rediscovery of a community of the living in an encounter with the dying, of death as a public event, of the need for symbolically rich religious and cultural resources. The revival of death remains largely in the hands of psychologists, therapist

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1998-12:
Heinz, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at California State University, provides a provocative though somewhat effusive examination of death practices in a religious, historical, anthropological, and mythological context. He criticizes contemporary American views of death, wherein old age is seen as a curable ailment and the topic of death avoided. Our unimaginative, spiritually impoverished death system, Heinz argues, begets a shallow, dispirited existence. Through revitalization of ritual within the context of community and religion, we can bring hope and renewed meaning to our deaths. Heinz admits that his own Christian beliefs color his discussion, but he compensates by devoting ample consideration to other religious traditions. In conclusion, he looks to music, the visual arts, dance, theater, and language to help invigorate the connection between the living and the dead. This scholarly analysis includes a rich bibliography and is recommended for all libraries.‘Annette Haines, Central Michigan Univ. Libs., Mount Pleasant (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Reviews
Review Quotes
"A remarkable achievement. A passionate and prophetic book that deserves to be widely read."--Rick Moody
"A remarkable achievement. A passionate and prophetic book that deservesto be widely read."--Rick Moody
"Donald Heinz in The Last Passage has performed an immensely useful task:he has sorted through the vast and heterogeneous literature on death and dyingthat has grown up in recent years and shown us what is valuable in it as well aswhat is lacking when held up to a serious look at the phenomenon it purports toclarify. In his beautifully written and carefully argued book Heinz describesthe insights about death of several of the great traditions and shows the way inwhich a renewed understanding of retual can help us deal more adequately withthis ultimate challenge."--Robert N. Bellah, Professor of Sociology, Universityof California, Berkley and coauthor of Habits of the Heart and The Good Societythe Heart
"Donald Heinz in The Last Passage has performed an immensely useful task: he has sorted through the vast and heterogeneous literature on death and dying that has grown up in recent years and shown us what is valuable in it as well as what is lacking when held up to a serious look at thephenomenon it purports to clarify. In his beautifully written and carefully argued book Heinz describes the insights about death of several of the great traditions and shows the way in which a renewed understanding of ritual can help us deal more adequately with this ultimate challenge."--RobertN. Bellah, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkley and coauthor of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society
"Donald Heinz is a mature and insightful observer of our society's anxieties about the last passage. But he is also something more--a person whose own experiences of loss and hope have coalesced into a vision of revewal for the communal spirit that can see us safely through both life anddeath."--Robert Kastenbaum, Arizona State University
"Donald Heinz is a mature and insightful observer of our society'sanxieties about the last passage. But he is also something more--a person whoseown experiences of loss and hope have coalesced into a vision of revewal for thecommunal spirit that can see us safely through both life and death."--RobertKastenbaum, Arizona State University
"Our unimaginative, spiritually impoverished death system, Heinz argues, begets a shallow, dispirited existence. Through revitalization of ritual within the context of community and religion, we can bring hope and renewed meaning to our deaths.... This scholarly analysis includes a richbibliography and is recommended for all libraries."--Library Journal
"Our unimaginative, spiritually impoverished death system, Heinz argues,begets a shallow, dispirited existence. Through revitalization of ritual withinthe context of community and religion, we can bring hope and renewed meaning toour deaths.... This scholarly analysis includes a rich bibliography and isrecommended for all libraries."--Library Journal
"There is no doubt that death is now out of the closet, and being discussed in hospitals, courtrooms, and lawyers' offices. But that is not enough. Donald Heinz would have us think much more richly and deeply about death, attempting to find ways to bring to death a greater sense of thesacred and of ritual. His is a rich and vital contribution on a central and neglected topic."--Daniel Callahan, Director, The Hastings Center
"There is no doubt that death is now out of the closet, and beingdiscussed in hospitals, courtrooms, and lawyers' offices. But that is notenough. Donald Heinz would have us think much more richly and deeply aboutdeath, attempting to find ways to bring to death a greater sense of the sacredand of ritual. His is a rich and vital contribution on a central and neglectedtopic."--Daniel Callahan, Director, The Hastings Center
"Our unimaginative, spiritually impoverished death system, Heinz argues, begets a shallow, dispirited existence. Through revitalization of ritual within the context of community and religion, we can bring hope and renewed meaning to our deaths.... This scholarly analysis includes a rich bibliography and is recommended for all libraries."--Library Journal"Donald Heinz is a mature and insightful observer of our society's anxieties about the last passage. But he is also something more--a person whose own experiences of loss and hope have coalesced into a vision of revewal for the communal spirit that can see us safely through both life and death."--Robert Kastenbaum, Arizona State University"Donald Heinz in The Last Passage has performed an immensely useful task: he has sorted through the vast and heterogeneous literature on death and dying that has grown up in recent years and shown us what is valuable in it as well as what is lacking when held up to a serious look at the phenomenon it purports to clarify. In his beautifully written and carefully argued book Heinz describes the insights about death of several of the great traditions andshows the way in which a renewed understanding of ritual can help us deal more adequately with this ultimate challenge."--Robert N. Bellah, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkley and coauthor of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society"There is no doubt that death is now out of the closet, and being discussed in hospitals, courtrooms, and lawyers' offices. But that is not enough. Donald Heinz would have us think much more richly and deeply about death, attempting to find ways to bring to death a greater sense of the sacred and of ritual. His is a rich and vital contribution on a central and neglected topic."--Daniel Callahan, Director, The Hastings Center"A remarkable achievement. A passionate and prophetic book that deserves to be widely read."--Rick Moody
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, December 1998
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Summaries
Long Description
Is death merely the cessation of life? Are our final years simply a wearing out of the body? Are hospitals and funeral homes, the bureaucratic machinery of death, capable of handling the profound spiritual dimension of dying? In The Last Passage, Donald Heinz offers wise answers to these questions in a book that urges us to "recover a death of our own" and to view our final years as a fulfilment, a "last career". Despite the recent spate of books on death and dying, death remains a fact our culture tries desperately to ignore. In other times and in other cultures, preparing for death was seen as an important spiritual task, perhaps the most important task of our lives. Heinz argues that we can reconceive of death, reinvest it with meaning, and save it from becoming a meaningless biological event. Seeking appropriate models for such a reconstruction, Heinz offers a fascinating overview of the many ways death has been envisioned and ritualized throughout human history, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to 15th century Christian ars moriendi--manuals on the art of dying--and from Jean Paul Sartre to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. He also surveys the more recent contributions of psychologists, anthropologists, cultural critics, and death awareness advocates, whose efforts have largely failed to integrate death into a larger human story and the larger human community. Finally, Heinz shows us how we might create rituals through the use of music, visual arts, dance, drama, and language that would enable us to approach death with reverence, as the spiritual consummation of our lives.
Main Description
Is death merely the cessation of life? Are our final years simply a wearing out of the body? Are hospitals and funeral homes--the bureaucratic machinery of death--capable of handling the profound spiritual dimension of dying? In The Last Passage, Donald Heinz offers wise answers to these questions in a book that urges us to "recover a death of our own" and to view our final years as a fulfillment, a "last career." Despite the recent spate of books on death and dying, death remains a fact our culture tries desperatelyto ignore. In other times and in other cultures, preparing for death was seen as an important spiritual task--perhaps the most important task of our lives. Heinz argues that we can reconceive of death, reinvest it with meaning, and save it from becoming a meaningless biological event. Seekingappropriate models for such a reconstruction, Heinz offers a fascinating overview of the many ways death has been envisioned and ritualized throughout human history, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to 15th century Christian ars moriendi--manuals on the art of dying--and from Jean Paul Sartre toElizabeth Kubler-Ross. He also surveys the more recent contributions of psychologists, anthropologists, cultural critics, and death awareness advocates, whose efforts have largely failed to integrate death into a larger human story and the larger human community. Finally, Heinz shows us how we might create rituals through the use of music, visual arts, dance, drama, and language that would enable us to approach death with reverence, as the spiritual consummation of our lives.
Main Description
Is death merely the cessation of life? Are our final years simply a wearing out of the body? Are hospitals and funeral homes--the bureaucratic machinery of death--capable of handling the profound spiritual dimension of dying? In The Last Passage , Donald Heinz offers wise answers to these questions in a book that urges us to "recover a death of our own" and to view our final years as a fulfillment, a "last career." Despite the recent spate of books on death and dying, death remains a fact our culture tries desperately to ignore. In other times and in other cultures, preparing for death was seen as an important spiritual task--perhaps the most important task of our lives. Heinz argues that we can reconceive of death, reinvest it with meaning, and save it from becoming a meaningless biological event. Seeking appropriate models for such a reconstruction, Heinz offers a fascinating overview of the many ways death has been envisioned and ritualized throughout human history, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to 15th century Christian ars moriendi --manuals on the art of dying--and from Jean Paul Sartre to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. He also surveys the more recent contributions of psychologists, anthropologists, cultural critics, and death awareness advocates, whose efforts have largely failed to integrate death into a larger human story and the larger human community. Finally, Heinz shows us how we might create rituals through the use of music, visual arts, dance, drama, and language that would enable us to approach death with reverence, as the spiritual consummation of our lives.
Main Description
Is death merely the cessation of life? Are our final years simply a wearing out of the body? Are hospitals and funeral homes--the bureaucratic machinery of death--capable of handling the profound spiritual dimension of dying? InThe Last Passage, Donald Heinz offers wise answers to these questions in a book that urges us to "recover a death of our own" and to view our final years as a fulfillment, a "last career." Despite the recent spate of books on death and dying, death remains a fact our culture tries desperately to ignore. In other times and in other cultures, preparing for death was seen as an important spiritual task--perhaps the most important task of our lives. Heinz argues that we can reconceive of death, reinvest it with meaning, and save it from becoming a meaningless biological event. Seeking appropriate models for such a reconstruction, Heinz offers a fascinating overview of the many ways death has been envisioned and ritualized throughout human history, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to 15th century Christianars moriendi--manuals on the art of dying--and from Jean Paul Sartre to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. He also surveys the more recent contributions of psychologists, anthropologists, cultural critics, and death awareness advocates, whose efforts have largely failed to integrate death into a larger human story and the larger human community. Finally, Heinz shows us how we might create rituals through the use of music, visual arts, dance, drama, and language that would enable us to approach death with reverence, as the spiritual consummation of our lives.
Unpaid Annotation
Heinz offers wise answers to questions about death, urging readers to "recover a death of [their] own" and to view the final years as a fulfillment, a "last career".
Table of Contents
Prefacep. ix
Introduction An Invitation to Experimental Theaterp. xv
the Dying and Reviving of Deathp. 3
Introductionp. 3
Imagining Deathp. 32
Conclusionp. 69
the Lost Art of Dyingp. 70
the Last Careerp. 88
Finishing the Storyp. 103
Along the Ritual Wayp. 128
Introductionp. 128
Ritual Quarrying: Bodies in Motionp. 152
Introductionp. 152
Ritual Quarrying: the Arts and Letters of Hopep. 185
Epiloguep. 215
Notesp. 221
Bibliographyp. 269
Indexp. 291
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

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