AGAINST FORGETTING: "Death and Dying" is Trending

By Ruth Rosen
Friday August 23, 2013 - 12:16:00 PM

I am just old enough to remember when no one spoke about cancer, even though my mother's two best friends and my father's mother died of breast cancer. Nor did anyone discuss death. My first experiences of death were terrifying because the subject was taboo. What happened to my grandparents when they disappeared? No answer. Once, I returned home from college and my father casually told me that one of my grandmothers had died. Why hadn't I been told? "We didn't want to bother you." I felt cheated, but didn't understand why. 

And so death has remained a great mystery, a frightening one at that, especially since my mother took her own life in 1976. It became more intimate -- and bearable -- when, in 1989, I went to a one-week self-help retreat for cancer patients at Commonweal, a non-profit center in Bolinas, California. Founded in 1976 on a glorious bluff in northern California, it is dedicated to "healing, learning, the environment, and justice." There I learned that my cancer might not be cured, but I could still heal my spirit by learning to live in an authentic way, in the present, even as I faced what doctors predicted as my probable death. 

But I didn't die. Fortified by the extraordinary experiences I had at Commonweal, I changed my life and began living as though I had only one more year left to live. My values didn't change, but I began to make new choices. Michael Lerner, the brilliant and visionary co-founder of Commonweal, had warned me that many people would get angry when I made new choices, and he was right. I focused on what I valued as important, gave up being a "good girl," and the rest of my life has been much richer. Every day I feel blessed by the gift of life. 

Now, Commonweal is again teaching me important lessons. In 2007, Michael Lerner created The New School at Commonweal, where a series of distinguished and visionary speakers address enthusiastic and curious audiences about a broad range of topics, which are available as podcasts. The End-of Life Conversations have focused on death and dying. The guest speakers at that these conversations ask questions for which we need new answers. How do you have a death of your own, rather than one that ends in a hospital or a nursery home? What kind of legacy do you want to leave to your friends and family, aside from assets? An autobiographical retrospective about your life? A video? How do you wish to die, and how do you want others to acknowledge the end of your life? 

These conversations were inevitable. We, the elders of the Baby Boom generation--born during and right after World War II -- were never going to enter old age without questioning what previous generations did before us. Throughout our lives, we have redefined every stage of our lives. Now, as we face the last chapter of our lives, we are asking how we'd like to die, how we view death, and which spiritual traditions may help us redefine the experience of what we now call " a good and dignified death" 

Death has clearly come out of the closet. Or, as the digital age would have it, "Death and Dying" is Trending. At Commonweal, it is a serious intellectual and spiritual journey. The New York Times web site has a special "Navigator about Death and Dying" section. But you won't be surprised that corporate America has also figured how to profit from a new generation's desire to reinvent the end-of -life experience. That, too, was inevitable. 

Hallmark, a privately owned corporation, which used to sell sympathy cards to the bereaved, has now created cards that address the fear and anxiety of people who know they are dying. As the Economist magazine recently noted, "The greetings-card industry, which studies social trends carefully, is a useful window on changing manners. Editors and art directors at Hallmark's headquarters in Missouri say that customers now want candor, even about terminal illness." 

Some cards express happiness that "our paths came together in this life and you're in some of the best memories I have and you always will be." In drugstores, you can now find shelf-sections labeled "tough times" or extended illness" that include the word "cancer." There are even cards about Alzheimer's that speak of "the twilight that fell on your loved one's mind." Influenced by research for grief counselors, Hallmark also sells cards that acknowledge the loneliness of the bereaved "long after the last casserole is finished and the phone stops ringing." 

Such cards are likely to reap great profits. Hallmark sells half of all sympathy cards in this country. As the seventy-two million men and women in the Baby Boom generation turn 65, they are seeking new ways to live the last chapter of their lives. They eat better and exercise more than any previous generation. Their lives have been extended by new drugs and new medical technologies. They carry with them a certain sense of entitlement, grounded in the values of the counterculture or the political activism of their most formative years. Once they thought they could change America. Now, they seek to reinvent death and dying. 

Despite the commercialization that appropriates the new candor toward death and dying, it is still a positive sign that Americans are more willing to exchange euphemism for an honest acknowledgement of the end of life. After decades of denial, the elders of the Baby Boom generation just might transform what the great muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford so vividly described in her 1963 expose of The American Way of Death--a death that was denied, "sentimentalized, highly commercialized and above all, excessively expensive." Just maybe, we will do better. 

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