Death goes in and out of fashion. The topic lingers behind euphemisms for a few years, and then someone calls it forth again: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross with her disciplined "On Death and Dying" in 1969; Susan Sontag with her angry but profound "Illness as Metaphor" in 1978 and the empathetic follow-up "AIDS and Its Metaphors," in 1988; Derek Humphry, implausibly, with his suicide handbook "Final Exit" in 1991; Sherwin Nuland with his magisterial "How We Die" in 1993; more recently, Joan Didion with her agonizingly precise "The Year of Magical Thinking" in 2005; and Atul Gawande with his humane "Being Mortal" in 2014. Each of these books argues, one way or another, for a continuum between life and its conclusion. The gloss of youthful vitality can persuade us that life is for the living, but life is also for the dying, and repudiating that ultimate punctuation escalates our anxiety and deprives us of final dignity. Time and again, we must clarify our individual and collective beliefs about how the last chapter changes the rest of the narrative. "Or not to be" is not in fact a question.
These recent weeks have seen the publication of five books about death: one by a historian; two by hospice workers; one by a widow; one by a man who is dying himself. Several of them quote Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" to advocate resilience, then map the fine line between denial and succumbing. In "Death's Summer Coat," Brandy Schillace complains, "The modern Westerner has lost loss; death as a community event, and mourning as a communal practice, has been steadily killed off." Examining rituals of bereavement across cultures and across time, she suggests that everyone else has been better at the rites of farewell than we are. Our postindustrial disavowal of mortality is described by Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote, "For every man, his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation." Schillace, a research associate at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, points toward the confusion that has emerged in a technological age when brain death, heart death and other definitions becloud our understanding of expiry itself, observing that by current legal definitions, the same person could be alive under American law and dead under British law. We don't know what death means or even what it is.