MODERN-DAY Americans have been as repressed about death as the
Victorians were about sex, or so say the thanatologists, those
academics who delve into all aspects of death - medical,
psychological and social.
But suddenly death seems to have gone from interloper to
invited guest, judging by the outpouring of books and movies that
have recently poked at it from every angle.
Death has even wormed its way into the world of marketing,
inspiring a number of macabre products, from skeleton earrings to
the Death brand of cigarettes.
Betty J. Eadie's "Embraced by the Light," a Christian account
of a near-death experience filled with ministering angels, has
topped best-seller lists for months.
"How We Die" by Sherwin B. Nuland, a doctor's graphic tale of
how six major causes of death - from AIDS to Alzheimer's - sabotage
the body, has also become a best seller, leading a pack of recent
titles like "Raising the Dead: A Doctor's Encounter With His Own
Mortality," "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" and "Death: The
Trip of a Lifetime."
Death has won a niche in Hollywood, too. Last fall, "Fearless,"
starring Jeff Bridges, depicted an architect who feels so
invincible after surviving a plane crash that he keeps taunting
That was followed by "My Life," in which a public-relations
executive played by Michael Keaton makes peace with his life, and
death, in the face of a cancer diagnosis. And of course,
"Schindler's List" and "Philadelphia" examine, respectively, the
Holocaust and AIDS.
Beyond the serious treatment of death are products that evoke
the end or even scream it. Last year, the Los Angeles County
coroner's office inaugurated Skeletons in the Closet, a mail-order
catalog of grisly items like toe-tag key chains and beach towels
etched with a crime-scene body outline. (The profits help
underwrite the office's programs to combat drunken driving.)
Becoming a hit on college campuses is the "dead-baby" necklace,
a creation of a California jeweler who colorized a Victorian photo
of a deceased infant (once a common memento) and encircled it with
silver beads. On the East Coast, a chic bulletproof vest, encased
in black leather, has been dubbed "Kill Couture."
Is it all a gloomy coincidence? Hardly. Psychologists,
sociologists, theologians and, yes, thanatologists, say that
faddishness aside, a number of social forces have jolted American
society out of its denial of death. And if the forces themselves
are grim, the awakening is healthy.
"Death has come out of the closet," said Rabbi Earl A.
Grollman, a psychologist and the author of 10 books on death,
including "Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers" (Beacon Press,
"For so many years people thought that if they didn't talk
about it, death would go away. It was the immorality of mortality.
But for the first time, people are willing to acknowledge that
living is the leading cause of death, and they want to talk about
The current interest in death certainly has its precedents,
notably Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's best-selling "On Death and
Dying," published in 1969. Ten years earlier, Dr. Herman Feifel's
"Meaning of Death" captured wide public attention. In between, the
assassination of President John F. Kennedy turned the private
practice of mourning public, and the televised war in Vietnam
beamed images of death across shag carpets.
But in the last 15 years - paradoxically, a time of relative
peace - new phenomena have catapulted death to the fore of American
The AIDS epidemic has returned premature death to a society
that had all but wiped out fatal childhood diseases, and the
mushrooming of violent crime has raised the specter of random death.
Ethical debates swirl around the practices of euthanasia and
assisted suicide, whose chief proponent, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, is
both hailed and vilified. …