The New Death

STEPHEN BATES

Baby boomers put their own spin on marking the end of life.

Writing in Encounter magazine in 1955, the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer argued that death had become the great unmentionable. The Victorians were prudish about sex and candid about death, he said, whereas Westerners of the mid-20th century were garrulous about sex and, well, stiff about stiffs. Death be not loud.

In pop culture nowadays, though, death is mighty loud. Traveling exhibits like "Body Worlds" are popular and profitable, with preserved cadavers dribbling basketballs, hurling javelins and pondering chess boards. HBO's Six Feet Under frothily blended sex and death for five seasons. Alice Sebold's 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones, narrated by a dead girl, spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list. Amazon's "Death & Grief" section has more than 10,000 titles. Ernest Becker's Denial of Death sells well enough to seem oxymoronic.

But we shouldn't be too hasty in congratulating ourselves and deriding earlier generations as uptight and self-deluded. We can chatter and chortle about death without honestly confronting it. In fundamental ways, our culture is reinventing death rites and, in the process, growing further apart from death itself.

The old attitude toward death is poignantly illustrated by The Undertaking, a documentary airing on PBS's Frontline Oct. 30. It features Thomas Lynch, a Michigan funeral director, essayist and poet whose books include a 1997 volume called The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade. In the film, we see the dead being embalmed, dressed, powdered, laid out for display and even cremated. Most hauntingly, Mr. Lynch talks with a couple who face the imminent death of their two-year-old son, blind and unable to speak since birth as a result of a rare genetic abnormality. The mother says that she can't imagine life without him, but the "traditions that we follow . . . maybe will help us survive."

Those traditions seem to be withering, as Mr. Lynch acknowledges. He told me about "theme" funerals that focus on the deceased's favorite pastimes, "golf or bowling or boxing." Once a gift to the dead, the funeral is fast becoming a gift from the dead, planned in advance like a bequest. With "pre-need" funeral arrangements, survivors can be saved from having to make difficult choices. "People say they don't want to be a burden to their children," Mr. Lynch recounts. "I say, Why not? They've been a burden to you."

In funeral rites, venerability once provided solace (the community's traditions live on even as individuals die) as well as caution (your day will come too, buster). For many Americans now, by contrast, ancient rituals are intolerably old-fashioned and rigid, at once crusty and procrustean. "In an era where options surround us everywhere from the toothpaste selection at the grocery store to a hundred versions of white paint at the hardware store," Amy Meyerson writes in Obit, the Web site of a soon-to-be-launched death-centric magazine, "it's natural that our choices regarding the dead be equally complete and equally reflective of the individual consumer."


What's wrong with all this? At the individual level, funerary frivolity trivializes both the death and the life that preceded it. At the social level, tradition and ritual, passed from generation to generation, create a common framework for discussing life's ultimate questions. When we choose customized, individualized, let-it-be-me funerals, we start slipping from lingua franca to tabula rasa. Soon, we're talking only to ourselves.


A stroll through the exhibit floor of the National Funeral Directors Association convention, in Las Vegas earlier this month, suggests that death options are indeed as plentiful as toothpaste brands. You can get a casket that's biodegradable wicker, or big-and-tall, or cowboy-style ("rustic pine" with "hand-forged iron hinges" — and it "can be personalized with a brand"). Coming soon: a casket modeled on "the popular 'Photon Torpedo' design seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Even hair reliquaries have a distinctive 21st-century look. Trifac Inc. markets shapely models called the Lotus, the Lumen, and, um, the Hymen.

Cremations accounted for less than 10% of American deaths in 1980; now they're up to a third, and the Cremation Association of North America expects them to pass 50% by 2025. Mobility stokes the flames. When we stayed put, Mr. Lynch says, we planted our ancestors. When we flit from place to place, ancestors need to be portable. Now, as Frontline shows, not only can you watch the cremation; you can step up and throw momma to the flame. Afterward, her ashes can be reheated inside molten glass to form an attractive crystal ball, or processed into diamonds, or blended into plant food — which, come to think of it, is where we're headed anyway.

The funeral association's neo-necro products represent only part of the new mortality. "Deathcare," as it's called, is abuzz with change. Some folks get buried with their BlackBerrys — survivors can text their sorrows away. A developer in Las Vegas has proposed a "stylized version of the Coliseum in Rome," featuring a mausoleum, a gift shop, a "virtual casino" — whatever that is — and, balm for bereavement's sting, a tavern. In The Threepenny Review earlier this year, Bert Keizer described one frolicsome funeral: A woman biked to the grave, pulling a cart that bore the colorful casket. The dead man's young son sat atop the casket and pretended to drive. To Mr. Keizer, it seemed like "a desperate attempt at saying 'Howdy!' to Death."

According to anthropologist Nigel Barley, a family in Lancashire, England, a few years ago, wanted "Dad" chiseled on the churchyard tombstone, but the vicar insisted on "Father." If "Dad" were permitted, he said, "it will not be long before we have Cuddles, Squidgy and Ginger, which would make the last resting place sound like a pets' cemetery." Such a dispute is unimaginable in the U.S., chummy yet individualistic, and, it should be said, increasingly fond of burying its pets, a lucrative sideline at the funeral directors' convention. Hidebound tradition is the grimmest reaper of all.

Though it's far from the norm, sassy, saucy death-chic is spreading. As Mr. Keizer observes, attitudes toward death change as belief in the afterlife fades. Goodbye isn't quite the same when the departed is headed for a hole or a furnace and no place else. Sociologist Tony Walter suggests that squinting at death is fun when, as now, death isn't staring unblinkingly back at you. In a global war or pandemic, the topic may not seem so amusing. For their part, boomers want a final, Woodstockian opportunity to jolt the culture, even though much of their original audience, the easily scandalized older generation, is getting its groove on elsewhere.

What's wrong with all this? At the individual level, funerary frivolity trivializes both the death and the life that preceded it. At the social level, tradition and ritual, passed from generation to generation, create a common framework for discussing life's ultimate questions. When we choose customized, individualized, let-it-be-me funerals, we start slipping from lingua franca to tabula rasa. Soon, we're talking only to ourselves.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Stephen Bates. "The New Death." The Wall Street Journal (October 19, 2007).

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, Stephen Bates.

THE AUTHOR

Stephen Bates teaches at the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Prior to joining the School, he was literary editor for Wilson Quarterly. He has taught at Johns Hopkins University and been a guest lecturer at Harvard College, MIT, New York University, and Northwestern University. Visit his website here.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal



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