Death & Society
Sunday, January 25, 1998 Weekend Edition Sunday

Joanne Silberner reports on how our ideas about what is a 'good death' have changed over time -- from the 1700's when death was everpresent and intimate to the 20th century when it became what one historian called "the new pornography". Today, we're in the middle of yet another shift -- "death with dignity" is in. Our new heros are those who join the Hemlock Society and organ donation is as de rigueur as recycling.

You can read the transcript:

LIANE HANSEN, HOST: On the subject of death there is no dearth of information.

Bestselling books, such as "Transformed by the Light," "Hello from Heaven," and "How We Die" are just the latest way for Americans to seek answers to the meaning of death. Our fascination with the symbols and rituals has been around for centuries.

And as NPR's Joanne Silberner reports, our ideas about death have changed over time.

JOANNE SILBERNER, NPR REPORTER: Even though Michael Kibbee died last March, he lives, in a way, on the Internet. His picture, details of his life, and a quote from Plato are all posted at his Internet memorial, at a site called "The World Wide Cemetery."

Kibbee, a Canadian engineer, founded the site in 1995, after he'd learned he was dying of cancer. Anyone can post details of their loved ones on the World Wide Web, visit the monuments and memorials, even leave virtual flowers. It's death in the 90s.

Every age deals with death in its own way, which is why historian Robert Wells (ph) of Union College has spent years studying Vale (ph) Cemetery.


He stands amidst 54 acres of rolling hills land valleys set near the heart of downtown Schenectady.

ROBERT WELLS, HISTORIAN, UNION COLLEGE: Look down to the left down there. You can see a monument with a draped urn on it kind of peeking up through the trees.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Vale is one of the oldest still-operating cemeteries in the country. Over the years it's served as a refuge, Wells says, a cool, quiet, pleasant place to put things in perspective.

ROBERT WELLS: You're walking in the woods, surrounded by trees, communing with nature. You've gotten out of the city of the living, the hustle and bustle of everyday life and business. And then all of a sudden, here's a brief reminder of your own mortality.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Vale reveals a lot about American cultural mores and how they've changed.

Wells started out studying how childbirth has changed over time. He then studied marriage and family life, and that's taken him to the end of life and the graves of Vale Cemetery.

He points out the oldest stone, which dates back to 1725.

ROBERT WELLS: You see a simple stone like this. It's nothing more than a piece of fieldstone like I can dig up in my backyard. The back side has been kind of roughly shaped off into a rectangle. The back side isn't smooth. The front side would have been smoothed off and an inscription placed on it. But a very simple kind of chiseling.

JOANNE SILBERNER: In many parts of Europe as late as the early 1700s, the custom was to bury almost everyone in mass, anonymous graves. But the graves at Vale from that time demonstrate emerging American individualism. A Puritan version to be sure, but individualism nonetheless.

Wells's favorite headstone is that of a man named John Dunbar (ph), a tavern keeper who died in 1736. Carved in the stone is a skull with wings attached, and a prominent and eerie grin.

ROBERT WELLS: Winged death is the reminder that we are in fact mortal. And one of the common epitaphs of the middle of the 18th century was "prepare for death and follow me."

And so, these are stones which are designed not only to record the life of the person who's died, but to remind the reader that you, too, are mortal. And so you'd better prepare for death.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Because death -- especially from disease or accident -- could appear at any time, and many people died young. But as life got easier and religion lost some sway over peoples' lives, headstones got less threatening, more ornate. In way, more comforting, says Wells.

ROBERT WELLS: By the end of the 18th century you move away from the more kind of harsh puritan notion of predestination, to be condemned to hell, to a gentler, more unitarian theology, where salvation is more likely to be guaranteed.

And you can see this on the grave markers.

JOANNE SILBERNER: No more death's heads. The stones are light instead of dark. They're carved with angels and cherubs, willows and urns. And on the children's graves: little lambs.

The epitaphs describe souls ascending into heaven; no longer the dead ominously warning the living, but the living taking comfort from the dead. Through the late 19th century, the stark facts of death were not avoided by the living.

For his book, "Wisconsin Death Trip," Michael Lessy (ph) gathered photographs and newspaper articles about death in a small Wisconsin town.

MICHAEL LESSY, AUTHOR, "WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP": They died at home. The corpse was photographed. And often the photograph was placed in the family album, in the parlor, so that when people came to visit, they would often go through the family album and use that as an occasion to talk about the passing of that person.

JOANNE SILBERNER: And the bodies were kept at home in the front parlor for days. That's not to say people were quietly accepting or unafraid of death. Quite the contrary, formal mourning commonly lasted a year. There was also a real fear of being buried alive, with signaling devices sometimes built into coffins, just in case.

When death came after a long illness, Lessy says, people took what control they could.

MICHAEL LESSY: One could choreograph the end. One could arrange to say the proper goodbyes, be given the sacraments, be surrounded by your family. You could ask to be forgiven. And then you could slip away.

JOANNE SILBERNER: It was the 19th century version of the good death: at home, choreographed, and personal.

MICHAEL LESSY: Probably the good death now is something that's relatively painless and not too ugly.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Today, with the advent of high-tech medicine and the funeral industry, death has become less personal. The choreographer is no longer the dying person but the death professionals -- the doctor and the undertaker.

But many people feel it's gone too far. The reaction against being kept alive by machines has given us living wills, so people can take back control over the circumstances of their death.

At the extremes, the reaction has fueled movements for euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. And as better treatment for cancer and AIDS and other diseases extend life, people now have a chance to contemplate how they want to die.

MICHAEL LESSY: Some people say it's not the death that frightens them, it's the pain that precedes it. It's the helplessness that precedes it. We want control, whether it's through a morphine drip or through a combination of sedatives and asphyxia. We want to be able to say now and not later, in this fashion and not in any other fashion, certainly no pain. And, could we keep the bills down if possible?

JOANNE SILBERNER: With the cultural focus now more on how people die, graves and graveyards have faded in importance as the community's connection between the living and dead.

You can see that in the newer headstones at Vale Cemetery. They're getting smaller. There aren't many words on them. What carvings there are have evolved. They reflect not messages about God or grief, but instead how people define themselves.

Stones now bear engravings of automobiles, scales of justice, the image of a wrestler, and in this hometown of General Electric, a set of radio towers. And Wells points out a 20th century way to visit graves.


ROBERT WELLS: We see here -- this is on the edge of the cemetery, a newer area, where more recent graves -- and it's very much -- and it reflects the automobile. And this is a drive-through section of the cemetery.

And if you look off to the right there are vertical monuments. And if you want to see a name or read an inscription you actually have to get out of the car and walk your way back through.

Over here on the left, many of the monuments are small. They're low and they're tilted, so that in fact you can read several rows deep, and clearly don't have to get out of the car -- that you can drive through the cemetery and visit the grave without leaving your automobile.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Not many people come to Vale to walk around any more.


JOANNE SILBERNER: These days Robert Wells is one of the few. The only community left here is the community of the dead. Maybe those who would have visited are the ones who've turned to the World Wide Cemetery on the Internet.

Cultural historian Michael Lessy says the age-old fascination with death remains. Those's books on how to die a good death testify to that. But still, people just sneaking peeks at it.

MICHAEL LESSY: As if it's one of those things that is both absolutely entrancing and completely indecent -- somewhat pornographic -- instead of fully acknowledging it, accepting it, incorporating it into the inevitability of our short lives, the denial feeds the curiosity, the craving to know.

JOANNE SILBERNER: With high-tech medicine and minimalist tombstones, people are pushing death away. But with the books and television shows and the Internet, people are pulling death towards themselves.

MICHAEL LESSY: I don't think the needs have changed. The fears haven't changed. The dreads haven't changed. The mystery, the enigma hasn't changed. It's just how we fill up the empty space.

JOANNE SILBERNER: In the end, everything may have changed about the way we deal with death, except the fact of death itself. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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