‘How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to the Lost Art of Consolation’

“How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Consolation” gives insight into how to properly grieve and how to think about death, tragedy, and other misfortunes. (Princeton University Press)

By Dustin Bass

When it comes to grieving, consolation is often best received from someone who has dealt with grief before. They bring experience (unfortunately, it takes misfortune to receive such experience) and provide wisdom in how to deal with heartache and tragedy.

In one of the recent editions from Princeton University Press’s ongoing series, “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers,” the ancient wisdom comes from the great Roman statesman and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero. In “How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to the Lost Art of Consolation,” readers are shown insight into how to properly grieve and how to think about death, tragedy, and other misfortunes.

To begin, Michael Fontaine, the translator of the classic work “Consolation,” discusses how the original was primarily written in response to the untimely death of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia. More importantly, in the introduction, he discusses how the work he has translated is actually not Cicero’s at all, but was rather built upon the idea of Cicero’s lost work, which was lost around the fourth century.

This translation is based off of the work that arose suddenly in 1583 and had its authenticity debated for centuries. Although it was eventually concluded that it was not authentic, this doesn’t mean that the spirit of Cicero is not part of the work; indeed, it is.

As Fontaine states, “Not all fakes are fakes in the same way. This fake [“Consolation”] is not a fabrication, but a recreation.” The work utilized the remaining fragments from the original and the entire work has a style that is “highly Ciceronian.” For all intents and purposes, this is Cicero at work, as it was so expertly researched and written.

The Message

The message from Cicero is that death is a gift. In fact, he claims it to be the greatest gift. He admits how difficult it was to attain that perspective after the loss of his daughter. He had studied the Stoics extensively, but until his daughter died, those philosophies had not sunk in.

Through this work, he encourages the reader to see death as a kindness and accept it unquestioningly as part of life. In a phrase, he suggests that the only two things that are certain are death and that life is uncertain.

Cicero issues a warning about excessive grieving. He compares excessive and long-term grieving to slavery because it practically incapacitates a person. He warns about losing one’s dignity and character during times of grief. He writes that “nothing is more unbecoming and unmanly than exaggerated grief.”

For readers who have or have yet to experience intense grief, this stoic perspective may be too harsh, and in some ways it is. In fact, Cicero writes “since it’s my wound I’m healing, those who pick this book up shouldn’t be surprised if anything strikes them as a little overwrought. That was my plan. I want to help myself and everyone else simultaneously. To the extent I can, I also aim to offer comprehensive consolation for everyone’s grief.”

Cicero lists many Roman and non-Roman men and women who exemplified fortitude during grief. He states the specific tragedy and how that individual responded to the tragedy in the immediate and over time.

As the book continues, the author seems to rein in some of the harshness by striking a balance between grieving and stoicism. He states that it would be “unnatural and inhuman” to feel no grief at all, but follows by stating that to “overindulge in grief” is to reject our “universal condition”―that being death itself.

The Bliss of Death

The ultimate message Cicero seems to send is that death is a favor for all mankind because it eliminates our suffering. The worries and concerns, the pains and heartaches, and (as mentioned from some of his examples) the falls from grace can all be ended with death. He adds that there is often a price to be paid for living too long, a price that he himself was quite familiar with, as he had suffered exile, the death of his daughter, the demise of the Republic, and ultimately (though obviously not mentioned in the book) his murder by Mark Antony.

The author doesn’t suggest that all will have a gleeful time once they have been removed from this life. That heavenly hope is reserved for the righteous and the good. The wicked, however, have hell to look forward to. Cicero discusses the immortal soul as the obvious reason for the heavenly hope. Death is not the end; it is merely the end of suffering.

Regarding heaven, Cicero goes further to discuss the deification of those righteous, even Romulus, the founder of Rome (though this somewhat calls into question his definition of righteous). He lists others who have been deified because of their goodness, and in the end adds his daughter to that saintly list.

An Interesting Perspective on Grief

In the modern world, Stoicism is a lost art, especially in the face of tragedy. There is plenty in this work that readers will disagree with, whether on emotional or spiritual and religious grounds, but it is interesting to see how Cicero dealt with his own grief, and as the translator makes clear, “Consolation” is a work of Cicero’s thinking and belief system.

“How to Grieve” is an interesting read on death, grief, and how one might adjust their view on all of it, or at least how they respond to it.

Complete Article HERE!

The Good Death Through Time

By Caitlin Mahar, Melbourne University Press, $35.00.

Reviewed by Rama Gaind

How likely is it that our ancestors can help us now to face complex questions of dying?

The Good Death Through Time delves into the history of how people’s responses to dying have changed in western societies. We also get to understand when and why other Australians began to find the notion of a physician-assisted death appealing.

This book also asks how such a death became a ‘thinkable’-even desirable-way to die for so many others in western cultures. In particular, it looks at the radical way in which they changed in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I have quite a bit of understanding of white man’s ways, but it is difficult for me to understand this one.” ― G Ntjalka Williams, Ntaria Council President, 1997

An Australian Senate committee investigation of the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995, the first legislation in the world that allowed doctors to actively assist patients to die, found that for the vast majority of Indigenous Territorians, the idea that a physician ― or anyone else ― should help end a dying, suffering person’s life was so foreign that in some instances it proved almost impossible to translate.

For centuries a good death ― the ‘euthanasia’ ― meant a death blessed by God that might well involve pain, for suffering was seen as ultimately redemptive.

This book explores the modern idea that a good death should be painless, bearing in mind sometimes disturbing developments in palliative medicine, and an increasingly well-organised assisted dying movement. We are able to understand the radical historical shift in western attitudes to managing dying and suffering helps us better grasp the stakes in today’s controversies over what it means to die well.

Through unwavering research, Mahar writes an articulate and well-grounded guide to what people have thought and felt about dying.

Complete Article HERE!

A Good Death

— Instruction manuals for living written by the dying

By Kristen Martin

Adina Talve-Goodman lived with an awareness of her own mortality that most of us will never approximate. Born with a single-ventricle heart and pulmonary atresia—a condition where the valve that controls blood flow from the heart to the lungs doesn’t form—she had two surgeries in her first week of life alone. By four, she had undergone two open-heart operations; by twelve, she was in heart failure. “I was a happy kid even though I did not know what wellness felt like,” Talve-Goodman explains. After spending nearly two years on the waiting list for a new heart—a process she describes as “an exercise in how close you can get to death”—she received a transplant in 2006, at the age of nineteen. With her new heart, she adjusted to blood that coursed quickly through her body, pinking her previously pallid cheeks, affording her energy and strength she had never before known.

Talve-Goodman dreamed of publishing a collection of essays exploring her experience of chronic illness and approaching the brink of death, informed by critical theories of embodied difference, suffering, and disability. Eleven years after her heart transplant, when she was drafting those essays in the University of Iowa’s nonfiction MFA program, she was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma caused by the immunosuppressants that kept her body from rejecting its new heart. She died six months later, in January 2018, at thirty-one. 

Now, Talve-Goodman’s collection is here, though it is not the book she hoped would be her debut. Your Hearts, Your Scars brings together seven essays, all but one unfinished at the time of her death. In the introduction, her sister Sarika describes the collaborative process behind the book, one that its author did not take part in. “When Adina’s cancer treatments were starting not to go well, she said to me with a sadness and softness that she hadn’t even gotten to publish a book,” Sarika writes. “Of course she would, I said . . . I wish I had responded differently in that moment of openness. Maybe we could have talked about what she had wanted and worked on it together.” Instead, after Talve-Goodman died, her sister read and organized everything she had ever written and compiled a manuscript. Together, Talve-Goodman’s parents, both rabbis; the editorial team she had worked with at One Story for six years (Hannah Tinti, Patrick Ryan, and Maribeth Batcha); and her best friend since childhood, the comedian Jo Firestone, edited her words into “a book made out of love and grief.”

Books like Talve-Goodman’s bring us visions of death, but they do not bring us any closer to understanding it.

The essays that make up Your Hearts, Your Scars come in at just over one hundred pages and are rooted more firmly in the personal than the critical: Talve-Goodman writes about attending a summer camp for teenage transplant recipients in San Diego, before she got her new heart, where she met kids who “carr[ied] the weight of dead donors”; about the Thanksgiving when she held her old heart in her hands, having requested to take it home from the hospital; about realizing that she “might never feel as if being healthy and having energy is normal.” The essays are suffused with compassion and hope, but given the circumstances of publication, the overall effect is achingly bittersweet.

In this juxtaposition of the author’s clear-eyed appreciation for life that comes with being close to death and the reader’s ever-present awareness that the author is now, in fact, dead, Your Hearts, Your Scars joins a lineage of instruction manuals for living written by the dying. The most recent spate of such books hit shelves in the years leading up to the pandemic, before death became all too present and we shunned confronting mortal reality in favor of smarmy calls for resilience. The neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s 2016 memoir When Breath Becomes Air, written in the months leading up to his death of lung cancer at thirty-seven, kicked off a renewed interest in posthumously published meditations on death, hitting the top of the New York Times bestseller list and garnering critical acclaim. The next year brought Cory Taylor’s Dying, which Barack Obama named as one of his favorite books that year, and Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour, which the Washington Post hailed as “this year’s When Breath Becomes Air.” In 2019, Julie Yip-Williams’s The Unwinding of the Miracle, adapted from a blog she kept called My Cancer Fighting Journey, joined the pantheon, a little less than a year following her death at forty-two. It, too, drew comparisons to When Breath Becomes Air (Kalanithi and Yip-Williams shared an editor at Random House).

What unites all these posthumous memoirs is the hunger we bring to them as readers. We expect koan-like wisdom on what matters in life, an enlightened perspective gained from being at or near the end of it. We expect to come away transformed, in possession of the same moral clarity that their authors have achieved by dying. Back cover blurbs demand that readers heed the authors’ lessons: Atul Gawande—the author of Being Mortal, a book about end-of-life medicine—claims that “Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.” Ann Hood says Cory Taylor’s Dying “should be required reading for all of us.”

The ultimate lesson we hope to learn from these books? How to live meaningfully while knowing that life must end, and when it does end, how to face death with equanimity. Put simply, we want to learn how to die.

I have lived most of my life preoccupied with mortality, wishing that I could understand what it is like to die, to be dead. When I was twelve, my mother died of lung cancer; my father died of prostate cancer two years later. In the decades since, I have stopped believing in an afterlife—my parents are nowhere but in memory. Instead, I have tried to understand their deaths in a way I couldn’t when they were dying, and tried to understand death more broadly, through reading literature published from beyond the grave. Books like Talve-Goodman’s bring us visions of death, but they do not bring us any closer to understanding it.

Instead of this year’s When Breath Becomes Air, perhaps a maudlin blurber might call Your Hearts, Your Scars this year’s The Opposite of Loneliness—so far, this century’s paradigmatic work by an author who died before fully developing her craft. The book’s very existence fetishizes the idea that those who die young are especially insightful and worthy, which is in turn part of an impulse to make trite meaning of a life cut short.

Like Talve-Goodman, Marina Keegan was not consciously composing a manuscript to be read posthumously. She died in a car accident days after her graduation from Yale. The 2014 book— put together by Keegan’s family, friends, and her mentor at Yale, Anne Fadiman—takes its title from a piece Keegan wrote for commencement, which developed a tragic weight after her death because its pep talk no longer applied to her: “What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over . . . The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young.” The Opposite of Loneliness, which hung around the New York Times bestseller list for weeks, drew praise for its “youthful optimism, energy, honesty, and beyond-her-years wisdom.”

Talve-Goodman’s wisdom, on the other hand, comes from having experienced what it was like to die before she died, a fact that colored her image of the future. Though each essay has an undercurrent of brightness, Your Hearts, Your Scars is not a feel-good look at sickness and dying. (This jibes with the fact that the book is out from Bellevue Literary Press, an indie publisher with roots in the historic New York City public hospital that focuses on the intersection of the arts and sciences and exploring the human condition.) What Talve-Goodman’s loved ones have ultimately given readers in publishing her words is a perspective on chronic illness and survival that pushes back on the idea that people who suffer must inspire us or teach us gratitude.

When she died, Talve-Goodman was on the cusp of a literary career; she had only published one piece, an essay titled “I Must Have Been That Man,” which won the 2015 Bellevue Literary Prize in nonfiction. (Coincidentally, Fadiman was the contest’s judge.) That essay, which opens Your Hearts, Your Scars, recounts how Talve-Goodman traversed from illness to wellness forever marked by her near-death, a theme woven throughout the collection. As with many of the other pieces, “I Must Have Been That Man” is built around an incident that happened when Talve-Goodman was in college in St. Louis. She writes of being locked out of her apartment on a rainy day about a year after her heart transplant and coming across a man in the street who had fallen out of his electric wheelchair. It’s a story about the difference between compassion and pity, but the crux is in a reflective moment toward the beginning:

When I listed [for transplant], my parents, both rabbis, told me a story from the Talmud about a rabbi who goes to visit three sick men and each time the rabbi asks, “Is your suffering dear to you?” “That’s the whole story,” they’d explain, “and it’s the question that’s important.” I took it to mean this: When the time comes, will you be able to live without the heart defect that always made you special and strong? Will you be able to face wellness and normalcy?

Talve-Goodman realizes that her suffering is dear to her, at least, she writes, “a little bit.”

Reading the essays that follow, I thought about how the popularity of death memoirs speaks to how the suffering of others is dear to us. In “Your Hearts, Your Scars, Zombies,” a meditation on the cultural figure of the zombie that her sister notes is the closest to the melding of the personal and the critical that she aspired to publish, Talve-Goodman confronts the appetite well people have for stories about sickness: “What, then, for an illness narrative? Perhaps that I am what you make of me—I live this way, a different body, a body of hybridity, to mean something to you, to your experiences, to practice your empathy, to fetishize, even to ‘inspire.’” It’s a refreshing moment of reprimand against a tendency to read illness—or death—narratives with a posture of self-serving pity and a desire to extract encouragement. 

And still, reading Your Hearts, Your Scars, I found myself asking for more than its author wanted to—or could—give. I wished that Talve-Goodman had gone deeper on death—that she had taught me more about how to die. In the collection’s final piece, “Thank God for the Nights That Go Right,” Talve-Goodman lingers on what it felt like to almost die, as opposed to having made it out on the other side, feeling like what she at one point describes as “death in drag.” She writes of being tired, being desperate, being close to giving up the night before she learned that she would receive her transplant. “I always thought dying would feel worse,” Talve-Goodman writes. “I thought there would be more pain, I thought death would be clear.” What did dying feel like? I wrote in the margin, wanting to vicariously understand through reading something that literature cannot deliver.

After reading Your Hearts, Your Scars, I revisited Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air to remind myself of why all these posthumous memoirs get stacked up against it, and why publishers have tried to recreate its success: it actually does meditate cogently and vigorously on what makes life meaningful, even and especially with the acute knowledge of imminent death.

But Kalanithi didn’t start that line of inquiry in his final months—it was a lifelong pursuit, one he began while studying literature and biology in college in an effort to understand both “the life of the mind” and “the rules of the brain.” He chose medicine because he felt it was where “biology, mortality, literature, and philosophy intersect[ed],” and because he believed it would allow him to directly “forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” In performing neurosurgery, working on and in the organ that makes us individuals—the brain—Kalanithi further challenged himself to confront, along with his patients, “what makes life meaningful enough to go on living.” This was a man who dedicated his entire career to grappling with the fundamental questions of life.

There is value in reading death memoirs, if we can take them on their own terms.

Ironically, within When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi makes the argument that literature cannot teach us how to die—something I missed in my first reading, and that the market for books like Kalanithi’s has chosen to ignore. Early on, he writes, “I had spent so much time studying literature at Stanford and the history of medicine at Cambridge, in an attempt to better understand the particularities of death, only to come away feeling like they were still unknowable to me.” Later, after facing death through his patients—which taught him the limits of accessing someone else’s experience—and after receiving his own diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, Kalanithi turns back to books, reading “anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality.” He tells his oncologist that he’s doing so, “trying to find the right perspective.” She replies, “I’m not sure that’s something you can find by reading about it.”  

What Kalanithi ultimately learns is that he must decide for himself what he values in life, what makes his own life worth living, where he finds meaning. We each have to do this hard work when the time comes. Even with all of the meditative homework Kalanithi completed ahead of time, it wasn’t until he was dying that he could truly answer these questions, and his answers shifted along with his prognosis, his symptoms, his energy.

But still, there is value in reading death memoirs, if we can take them on their own terms. When Breath Becomes Air cannot prepare us to face our own mortality or bring us closer to comprehending the purpose of life or what it means to die. It can, though, allow us inside one man’s personal and philosophical end-of-life reckoning, which may in turn spur our own reflections. Similarly,Your Hearts, Your Scars cannot be an instruction manual for “living each day as a gift,” as the back cover claims that Talve-Goodman did. It can be a slim volume of words about coming-of-age that a young writer never got to polish to her satisfaction, shared as part of her legacy.

Complete Article HERE!

Rob Delaney’s book, about the loss of his son, sings with life

In ‘A Heart That Works,’ the ‘Catastrophe’ star ruminates on the death of his toddler from a brain tumor

by Nora McInerny

At the very top of the list of things that people say are “unimaginable” is the tragedy of one’s child dying. People don’t mean they can’t imagine it, of course, but that they will not; it would be too sad, too much. Not 10 pages into Rob Delaney’s “A Heart That Works,” a memoir of his son Henry’s life and death from brain cancer at age 2½, he insists that you do imagine it.

“If you have more than one child, it’s critical you pick one for this exercise,” he writes. “If you’re reading this, and you have a child, do it now.”

I did exactly that, because I’m a good listener, and because Delaney’s urge to have the world around him gain fluency in his pain is familiar to any griever. How can we express what it means to lose the ones we love, what their lives meant to the people in their orbit? How can we get people not just to acknowledge our pain with platitudes and sympathy cards and flower arrangements, but to feel it?

When everything happens for a reason, even the bitterest pill can be swallowed. But what meaning can possibly be assigned to a cancerous tumor growing in your baby’s brain? To watching him suffer through treatments that can only delay the inevitable? To having a permanent hole torn in the fabric of your family when there is nothing more to be done, and your toddler dies on his father’s 41st birthday?

For Delaney — blessedly — there is none. There is no silver lining to his infant son being diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergoing two years of brutal treatment, no bright side to his other sons growing up without their brother, to holding, with his wife, their son’s lifeless body. If that sounds like a bummer, well, it is — the guy’s kid died! — but to those who have felt the icy grip of grief around their own throats, it is a relief to read an account of grief that is not a series of hard-won life lessons wrapped in a gratitude journal.

There is no making sense of the senseless, and Delaney doesn’t attempt to. Instead, the comedian — best-known to my children as the dad from last year’s “Home Alone” reboot, and to most adults as the creator and co-star of “Catastrophe” — ditches a linear narrative and drags us into the chaos of real grief.

The book starts after Henry’s death and skips around in scenes that explore life before Henry’s illness, during his treatment and after his death. The result is a book that sings with life: not just Henry’s abbreviated one but the lives of the people who loved him, who love him, who will continue to love him until, as Delaney writes, they “walk through a door he had walked through.”

It’s unfair to expect grievers to emerge from the depths of loss having mined diamonds of meaning, alchemizing their suffering into a form of self-improvement. Grief, Delaney notes, doesn’t sanctify you, but in his case it appears to sharpen his vision: He spills out his shame over the workaholism that made him “a bad husband and a very, very good cog in the TV machine.”

He admits to skipping his father’s birthday celebration because, you know, doesn’t it seem a little gauche to celebrate having 70 years on this planet when your grandson had only two? These are the kinds of thoughts a person in the throes of grief often has and rarely gets to say out loud, let alone commit to the page.

After wiping tears from my face over the reaction one of Henry’s caregivers had to the news that the boy would soon die, I howled in delight at Delaney’s response to an acquaintance who wanted the Delaneys to know that his grandfather had survived the kind of brain tumor that killed Henry:

“Are you … kidding me? I wouldn’t care if your ninety-year-old grandfather got hit by three buses and then fell into a meat grinder! Grandfathers are supposed to get tumors and die! That’s their job!”

That my laughter annoyed the child whose death I had dutifully imagined earlier in the day was a bonus; I’d thought similar things when his father died of a brain tumor in 2014. That a book about a dead child is at times laugh-out-loud funny is a testament to Delaney’s skill; in the hands of a lesser writer, the humor could seem dismissive or grasping instead of the natural release valve of a person who is highly attuned to the absurdity of the awful.

Mary Oliver assured us that we do not have to be good, but Delaney shows us what that means: In the midst of your disorienting pain you can rage against the absurd and inhuman bureaucracy of modern health care; find comfort in passive suicidal ideation during scuba training (“I won’t take the regulator out of my mouth and inhale a lungful of water on purpose, but if it got knocked out by another flailing student and my own fin got caught on a drain, and I panicked and inhaled, and they couldn’t revive me — well, then that would be okay”); find comfort in your partner’s body while your child is undergoing brain surgery across the street; hate that your child is suffering and still find great beauty in the tasks associated with his care.

Grief is far more than crying, and a person is far more than their death. To share any part of Henry with the world was an act of great generosity. The depth of my own medical knowledge comes from the University of Google, but I can assure Rob Delaney that his is a heart that works.

Complete Article HERE!

Death as Life’s Work

In her new book, Hayley Campbell seeks to demystify death by sharing the perspectives of funeral home directors, gravediggers and others

By Robert DiGiacomo

What happens when people die is often glossed over. Yet as the adage goes, death is one of life’s few certainties.

Journalist Hayley Campbell in her new book, “All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work,” sets out to demystify death by writing about “the naked, banal reality of this thing that will come to us all.”

It’s a subject for which Campbell, 36, has been preparing for most of her life. As a little girl, she recalls death being ever present — she drew dead bodies after seeing her comic book artist father’s graphic novel about Jack the Ripper in progress, questioned the version of death from her Catholic school education and saw her first body at 12, when her friend, Harriet, drowned while trying to rescue her dog. The London-based Campbell has since written regularly about death and related topics for Wired, BuzzFeed, Vice and other publications.

“On an existential level, we have to think about death; not only will we die, but everyone we know and love will die.”

In “All the Living and the Dead,” Campbell spends time with those whose professional lives revolve around death, including funeral directors, gravediggers and an executioner. Warning to anyone who’s squeamish: She provides vivid details of what it’s like to dress the dead, perform an autopsy and process bodies for use in medical education.

“On an existential level, we have to think about death; not only will we die but everyone we know and love will die,” Campbell told Next Avenue. “I can see why people would avoid that topic, but once you start talking about death with people for whom it’s their job, you can see how you can compartmentalize it.”

Here are some key takeways about death — and life — from Campbell and the book:

Death is Never Far Away, Whether We Acknowledge It or Not

As part of her research, Campbell went places where few civilians dare. “We don’t want to think about it, so it’s sort of a secret,” Campbell says of many death rituals. “I love seeing the stuff that as a general civilian person you can’t see. It can be behind doors you pass every day — on every high street, there is a funeral home — but you don’t realize something interesting is happening there every day.”

Even when we must go to a funeral home, whether to plan a service for a loved one or attend a memorial, the experience is usually a fleeting encounter. For those in the funeral industry, it’s their way of being.

“It was a huge privilege to talk to those people,” Campbell says. “The thing they kept telling me was they do this job every day. When families have to use them, the family will be hugely involved and their best friends for two weeks. After the funeral, they will disappear and go back to not thinking that embalmers exist. I wanted to get through the appreciation of the work that has to happen. The world would look completely different if we didn’t have people collecting the bodies.”

There’s a Difference Between Being Desensitized and Detached About Death

As we enter middle age, death becomes ever more prominent, as we face the loss of parents, siblings, close friends, a spouse or partner — and our own mortality. Yet few of us are prepared for major loss. But when death is your reality, you have to develop a way to compartmentalize.

“People think death workers must be desensitized, but there’s a difference between people being desensitized and detached in a way that’s helpful,” Campbell says. “They’re not not thinking about death — they have thought about it a lot and stepped back just enough to do their jobs. They have thought about it so much that they have made peace with it. But I don’t think we as a society have been able to deal with it. So when someone dies, we completely fall apart.”

A New Generation is Rethinking the Funeral Ritual

As a younger generation — including more women — enter the funeral industry, rituals and attitudes are changing. This might mean a more personalized funeral service, a natural burial without a body being embalmed or even loved ones participating in a traditional ritual like dressing the dead, as Campbell did as part of her research.

“The role of the funeral director has changed to more of a counselor role rather than someone who just organizes the hearse,” Campbell says. “I do think women are changing it. Female funeral directors are more into letting families do things the way they want. But if they want tradition, they will organize it with the horse and the cart. I think they are just more open — the thing that is common among all the women in the funeral industry is they want to give people a voice and not force a certain way of doing anything on anyone.”

“The role of the funeral director has changed to more of a counselor role rather than someone who just organizes the hearse.”

Details Matter When Handling the End of Someone’s Life

Whether it’s the funeral director who kept underwear and socks in different sizes because families often forgot to bring undergarments for their loved one and he couldn’t live with someone not being properly dressed in their casket — or a gravedigger who provided a certain type of soil for the minster to throw on a coffin that would land more softly, those dealing with death regularly understand the difference the smallest details can make.

“They all had a sense of compassion and a sense of empathy,” Campbell says. “They all were doing little things in their job that no one would notice but they felt was the right thing to do. It may seem like something small, but when you think about grieving people and how they are so sensitive to everything, they are massive.”

Death Has a Way of Grounding You

Having written about death for most of her career, Campbell is not someone who’s faint of heart. But having immersed herself in death for three years to write the book, she came away with a new appreciation for life.

“It’s not like my eyes have been opened to things that I didn’t know about but the details have been filled in,” Campbell says. “I’ve seen dead babies and old, old dead people. I’m far more conscious of the old cliché that life is short. That is true, but you have no idea how much time you’re going to get. I think I’m more conscious of time.”

Complete Article HERE!

The Enduring Genius of ‘The Craft of Dying’

— More than 40 years ago, Lyn Lofland, who died last month, published a book that changed how I think about death and dying.

By: John Troyer

Lyn Lofland’s 1978 book “The Craft of Dying: The Modern Face of Death” completely changed how I think about death and dying. As I write in the introduction to a special 40th-anniversary edition of the book published a few years ago and featured below, “The Craft of Dying” is truly a message in a bottle, one sent from a decade when death and dying social movements coalesced around end-of-life ideologies that the Western world still struggles with today. Sadly, Lyn died this past September after a long and impactful career. I encourage you to read her obituary, written by one of her final graduate students, Ara Francis, who also contributed an epilogue to the book.

Lyn Lofland’s “The Craft of Dying” (1978) is one of the most important books on post-WWII death and dying practices that almost no one has read. To see Lofland’s largely overlooked, but still relevant, text republished by the MIT Press is both thrilling and deeply gratifying. It is the one book that in my capacity as Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath I think every person working on contemporary death and dying issues must read. Indeed, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in understanding how events 40 years ago shaped what Lofland would call today’s “thanatological chic” read “The Craft of Dying” and note the current uncanny resemblances to the 1970s.

This article is excerpted from the 40th anniversary edition of Lyn Lofland’s book “The Craft of Dying“

“The Craft of Dying” is, for me, that death, dying, and end-of-life issues book.

A common response to my adamant recommendation is — why? Why and how is this specific book any different or better than its contemporaries, e.g., “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker (to name two big death canon contenders)? My rapid answer is that Lofland’s book both documents what happened in the 1970s (the formation of new hospice spaces, activist groups encouraging people to accept death, the introduction of college courses on dying, and so on) alongside an invaluable critique of those activities. In fact, it is Lofland’s critique and classification of death-focused groups as social movements creatively constructing a new end-of-life ideology that makes “The Craft of Dying” fundamentally important. Lofland calls these end-of-life groups (similar in structure, she will note, to diffuse 1970s women’s movement and environmental movement groups) the happy death movement and uses the term to connote enthusiastic warriors taking on a challenge. Her critique is both generous and insightful at all times. But Lofland was not content with merely documenting what these death and dying groups did; she wanted to better understand what motivated their new end-of-life politics and thinking. It is her push to clearly articulate what is happening in her own moment that makes her book so valuable today; almost every argument and observation she first presented 40 years ago remains both pertinent and urgently needed now.

Almost every argument and observation Lofland first presented 40 years ago remains both pertinent and urgently needed now.

This book is truly a message in a bottle, and one sent from a decade when death and dying social movements coalesced around end-of-life ideologies that the Western world still struggles with today. That Lyn Lofland accomplished this feat in so few pages is an achievement in and of itself.

Discovering “The Craft of Dying”

For all my praise of Lofland’s work, I am embarrassed to say that I first learned of, and then read, “The Craft of Dying” in summer 2014. My mid-career discovery of Lofland occurred only after my esteemed colleague (and walking Death Studies encyclopedia) Tony Walter asked if I knew her book and the happy death movement argument. I said that no, I didn’t. Tony asked about Lofland, because he understood how “The Craft of Dying” directly related to my (then new) research project on American death and dying discourse during the 1970s.

In a nutshell, this research project examines how the 1970s functioned as a crucial but largely forgotten decade for understanding what motivates today’s death and dying groups, as well as foreshadowing many current end-of-life debates. It is during the 1970s that new death and dying tools and technologies took root, altering the definition of death: things taken for granted today, such as living wills and life-support technologies. Much of the decade’s activity is at a very local level and includes individuals forming groups that emphasize Death Acceptance, the Right-to-Die, and dying a Natural Death — all thoroughly documented in the book.

But the 1970s was also a decade when end-of-life issues extended all the way to the White House and bookended politically tumultuous times. In 1971 President Richard Nixon announced his War on Cancer, and in 1979 President Jimmy Carter formed the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical Behavioral Research, which later published its landmark 1981 report Defining Death: A Report on the Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death during the Reagan administration. Carter’s group would eventually become known as the President’s Council on Bioethics and advise all future Presidents on a wide array of issues, including, but not limited to, death and dying.

Lofland’s research remains a key historical and conceptual anchor for anyone interested in that decade, since “The Craft of Dying” analyzed and critiqued what was happening in the 1970s, during the 1970s. What any reader comes away with from this book, I think, is how death and dying were national conversations related to ongoing events — e.g., the Karen Ann Quinlan right-to-die case in New Jersey (which also went global) — and connected to personal freedoms — e.g., the country’s first Natural Death Act, passed in California in 1976, that gave individuals the right to legally refuse medical treatments even if the refusal meant dying.

After Tony Walter’s helpful nudge, I discovered that “The Craft of Dying” was long out of print (the republishing idea first occurred in this very moment), but I persisted in locating a copy and subsequently devoured the book in one August 2014 sitting. I say in all seriousness that reading this book fundamentally changed how I approached all research on death, dying, the dead body, end-of-life concerns, the politics of death, the historical formation of hospice spaces, current Happy Death groups pushing for what Lofland has called “death talk,” and neoliberal economic “choice” about funerals. I could go on and on. And like any convert with a newly discovered evangelical zeal I wanted nothing more than to excitedly read long sections of “The Craft of Dying” to audiences.

Coincidentally enough, captive audiences were available to me in August 2014, since I was the Scholar in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York (now sadly closed). I am not kidding when I say that almost all my public lectures during the residency involved me simply reading sections fromLyn’s book, especially the introduction:

It seems likely that eventually humans will construct for themselves a new, or at least altered, death culture and organization—a new “craft of dying”—better able to contain the new experience. I believe, as do other sociological observers … that in the ferment of activity relative to death and dying during the last two decades in the United States we have witnessed and are witnessing just such a reconstruction. Undoubtedly within this ferment, especially that emanating from the mass media, there are elements of fad and fashion—a thanatological “chic” as it were, having approximately the same level of import as organic gardening and home canning among the rich. And certainly one can never underestimate the capacity of American public discourse to transform “life and death matters” into passing enthusiasms. But there is, I believe, more to this activity than simply one more example of impermanent trendiness in modern life. Americans, especially affluent middle-class Americans, have been in the process of creating new or at least altered ways of thinking, believing, feeling, and acting about death and dying because they have been confronting a new “face of death.”

And if you are reading this now and thinking to yourself that these words eerily describe death and dying in your own historical moment (“fad and fashion” always gives me pause), then you begin to see why a book published in 1978 continues challenging everyone to examine how any decade’s happy death movements can possibly be unique, or new, or revolutionary. Lofland wants readers to understand the history of the present, so that the next generation’s death and dying activists might also comprehend the historical relationships to their own current struggle.

Relevance for Today

“The Craft of Dying” also productively intervenes in one of the 1970s’ most unhelpful and unnecessary death and dying arguments, an argument that dogmatically persists today — i.e., that death is a taboo. If the happy death movement functioned like a true social movement, Lyn Lofland reasoned, then that movement needed an enemy, and the death taboo is the perfect foil, since everybody already “knows” that it “exists.”

The fact that we all eventually die becomes that rare universal constant that allows each human the opportunity, should we take it, to experience and think about death and dying in new ways.

Lofland is neither the first author, nor will she be the last, to thoroughly challenge how and why the death taboo argument is used, abused, and greatly exaggerated. The death taboo will always be a productive fiction for various happy death movement groups committed to ideologically transforming the “face of death” in America and the West, but it is a fiction all the same. As she rightly points out in part III, the death taboo argument serves a useful function that is especially popular with death-movement intellectuals (full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of said group). Her critique of death-movement intellectuals is reason enough to appreciate how farsighted this text remains today. Lofland’s crucial intervention begins:

It has been variously formulated, but essentially the view holds that America is a death-denying society, that death is a taboo topic, that death makes Americans uncomfortable so they run from it, that death is hidden in America because Americans deny it, and so forth. The consequences of all this denial and repression are asserted to be quite terrible: exorbitant funeral costs and barbaric funeral practices, inhumane handling of dying in hospitals, ostracism of the dying from the living, inauthentic communication with the fatally ill, an unrealistic, mechanical, non-organic view of life, and so forth. … As many scholars have pointed out, the empirical evidence for all these assertions is something less than overwhelming (see, for example, Dumont and Foss, 1972; Donaldson, 1972). And one might consider it somewhat odd that the statement that death is a taboo topic in America should continue to be asserted in the face of nearly a decade of non-stop talking on the subject. But if one appreciates the functions these statements serve in enemy evocation, one can also appreciate that their questionable empirical basis is hardly a serious obstacle to endless repetition. The importance of the “conventional view of death”—of the conventional wisdom about death—as propounded over and over again by movement intellectuals, is not its “truth” but its utility.

If making more people rigorously question whether or not they really need the death taboo fiction to advance their own death and dying arguments is the only thing republishing “The Craft of Dying” accomplishes, then all the waiting was worth it. Seeing the taboo argument finally debunked would also recognize Lofland’s scholarly commitment to status quo challenging scholarship both then and now. That said, I have a strong hunch that in the decades to come many death-movement intellectuals and practitioners will still make the death taboo argument to advance both their careers and book sales — a point not lost on Lofland when she states that the death taboo is always about utility, not truth.

Above and beyond the book’s uncanny timeliness (e.g., when reading the preface, replace all the originally listed years with the current year and note the similarities) Lofland taps into another core human experience: we Homo sapiens persist at dying. The fact that we all eventually die becomes that rare universal constant that allows each human the opportunity, should we take it, to experience and think about death and dying in new ways. Part II, Individual Constructions: Styling and Controlling the Dying Role, in particular, focuses on how the dying person becomes something different during the 1970s.

I found myself directly confronting Lofland’s newly articulated experience of death and dying, as discussed in part II, when my younger sister, Julie Troyer, died from terminal brain cancer on July 29, 2018. Watching my sister die made me reflect quite heavily on the book’s key assertions, and in very unexpected ways that accidentally (albeit sadly) coincided with writing this introduction. The MIT Press expressed interest in republishing “The Craft of Dying” while my sister was dying, but I started writing the introduction after she was dead — an interval of approximately one month. My father, Ron Troyer, a long-time grief and bereavement support-group facilitator and retired American Funeral Director, best summed up my death interval experience in very Loflandian language: it is one thing to publicly say, “Julie is dying,” it’s an entirely different experience to state, “Julie is dead.” The former felt active, the latter inert.

I chose to add this section about my recent experience with death and dying, as Lofland rigorously analyzes the role of language and expressivity in encouraging people to discuss precisely these issues. For many days I wondered aloud if it was appropriate for a death studies academic, such as myself, to write a new introduction for “The Craft of Dying” that includes a discussion of such a personal experience. After staring at this book for what seemed like eons, I fully realized the genius of Lyn Lofland’s irreplaceable contribution to contemporary death and dying discourse: that, no matter what any of us do; no matter our personal, professional, or familial relationship with death, everyone still dies. And that Lofland’s always-new-craft-of-dying requires we living humans to critically reflect on these confrontations with mortality in our own meaningful ways, so that we might glimpse, for a moment, what living and dying can become in our technologically advanced 21st century. It is vitally important, I think Lofland would say, to see our personal mortal ends in the modern face of death.

What, Then, for the Future of “The Craft of Dying”?

I see no reason why this book will not remain relevant for another forty years. In surveying how Lyn Lofland’s central arguments evolved over time, connections clearly emerge with the ACT-UP AIDS protests of the 1980s and 1990s, and the contemporary activism of today’s Black Lives Matter groups. Lofland rightly predicts that death and dying social movements will persist at emerging and folding back into each other, precisely because death refuses to phenomenologically disappear. The complexity of what she wrote has never dissipated and will continue to find new audiences for many years to come. Part I, The Situation of Modern Dying: Problems and Potentials, sums up via the chapter title itself what each generation will assuredly confront.

“The Craft of Dying” does come with a cautionary note, however, and it is a point that bears mentioning in the conclusion to this new introduction.

Happy death movement groups (then and now) always run the risk of alienating the very people they so eagerly want to help through non-stop ultra-upbeat expressive death talking that then demands transforming and accepting death/dying/mortality at all costs. The challenge here involves individuals becoming convinced that they are doing death wrong, and in that moment of doubt, Lofland wryly suggests, a “dismal death” movement might emerge:

If expressivity comes to be widely accepted as the only way to achieve a decent death, the emotionally reticent will find themselves under great pressure to “share.” If the idea that death and dying provide new opportunities for self-improvement becomes common currency, the chronic under achiever will find himself facing one more opportunity for failure. Not “getting off” on death may become as déclassé as sexual unresponsiveness. Then perhaps, a “dismal death” movement will rise to wipe the smile from the face of death and restore the “Grim Reaper” to his historic place of honor.

This book will remain relevant for all these specific cautionary reasons, and many more. I hope that in another four decades “The Craft of Dying” is republished for that historical moment’s own happy death movements; especially the ones that still evoke the death taboo enemy in order to evangelize a getting-off-on-death gospel. The irony, of course, is that Lyn Lofland showed us all how easy it is to talk about death and dying without ever transgressing any taboos, and she did this forty years ago in the book that you are about to read.

On further reflection it becomes clear that most happy death movements just can’t help themselves when it comes to constantly talking about this taboo that isn’t actually true. Why? It makes them feel useful. Lyn Lofland would likely say that’s okay.

In the face of dying, Death doesn’t really care.

Complete Article HERE!

And Finally

— Matters of Life and Death review – humility lessons from Henry Marsh

‘Darkly funny and self-lacerating’: Henry Marsh at home in Oxford, June 2022.

The ever candid neurosurgeon reflects on his own mortality, as well as the failings of his profession, in this enthralling third volume of memoirs


“I am not a scientist,” says Henry Marsh on the first page of And Finally. “Most neurosurgeons are not neuroscientists – to claim that they all are would be like saying that all plumbers are metallurgists.”

Marsh, who worked as a highly regarded neurosurgeon for more than 40 years, has a penchant for truth-telling, unencumbered by faux modesty. It’s what made his previous books – Do No Harm and Admissions – interrogating a life in medicine, haunted by the “reproachful ghosts” of patients he’d failed, so refreshing and inspiring to read.

This latest autumnal instalment follows in the same vein. Philosophical and scientific conundrums about brain surgery permeate the book: to treat or not to treat patients; how honest to be in giving a prognosis; euthanasia v assisted dying. Along the way the 72-year-old author wrestles with the dilemma of becoming a patient himself.

The memoir’s subtitle and celestial cover design allude to the 1946 Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death. It’s befitting as Marsh reflects on his own mortality after a diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer. He is phlegmatic about his prospects. Sometimes, though, he confesses to paralysing anxiety – a result of his approach towards serious problems that his wife, Kate, calls “therapeutic catastrophising”.

Despite its subject this is not a maudlin book; far from it. Divided into parts like a three-act play, it is often darkly funny, especially in the first act, Denial. Here, Marsh is self-lacerating and also self-forgiving when he reminisces about his medical mistakes. On one occasion he steels himself to admit to a patient that he’d operated on the wrong side of his brain. “Well, I quite understand, Mr Marsh,” the patient answers after a long silence. “I put in fitted kitchens for a living. I once put one in back to front. It’s easily done.”

Marsh is nonetheless fierce on himself throughout the book, as critical as he is of the arrogance of his profession. Now that he’s a patient, he sees clearly how he’s been demoted to an underclass; how some doctors behave as if patients are nothing more than walking pathology; and how they continue to practise medicine under the delusion (once also held by Marsh) that illness only affects patients, not doctors.

Elsewhere, he strikes a sadder personal note, recounting the end of a decades-long friendship with a conscientious Ukrainian neurosurgeon who figured prominently in his earlier memoirs. Working with him in poorly resourced Ukrainian hospitals had left Marsh feeling heroic. But he split from his colleague after discovering he’d been hiding from him a number of cases that had gone terribly wrong, with patients seriously harmed or dying after surgery.

It’s not stated whether Marsh also feels culpable, but certainly he agonises over his professional legacy. That anxiety folds into his nervousness about the future we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren through inaction over climate change. In one startling passage, he recalls a journey in the Indus delta where he witnessed a catastrophic spectacle: “a flotilla of plastic rubbish … it had neither beginning nor end. It floated past us in complete silence … full of ominous purpose”.

The retired neurologist, who in medical parlance has “hung up his gloves”, has composed a richly discursive book. He charts his ambivalence about undergoing radiotherapy for his cancer, and is especially passionate when advancing the case for assisted dying. He’s scornful of the “dishonest fudge” around the issue that sees doctors accepting the unofficial practice of prescribing large doses of opiate painkillers, as a form of “terminal sedation”.

During Covid, and the cult of death it seemed to spawn, Marsh was animated by the fear his time could run out before he finished making a doll’s house for his granddaughters. Its construction – a mournful metaphor for innocence that a future governed by global warming will deny his grandchildren – is also an act of defiance.

And Finally sounds increasingly ominous about his prostate cancer as the memoir works its way towards a resolution; Marsh is plain-speaking without being dispassionate, almost as if volunteering his own medical history as a case study. Indeed his book reminds me of the mantra – focused on operations – that I first heard at medical school, for doctors embarking on a career in surgery: “see one; do one; teach one”. Henry Marsh may have retired from medicine but let’s hope he keeps producing books as good as this one, which enthral as well as teach.

Complete Article HERE!