Facing Death Books, Movies - Even Fashion - Are Addressing a Subject Americans Used to Avoid
Lisa W. Foderaro 1994, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
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 death.
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, 1993).
"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 it."
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 life.
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. …