In the stately if not always accurate translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I of England, the Psalmist sings to the Lord: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” The song ends with a sly petition: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
That was the translation I murmured under the covers at night as a boy to fight off dread. The Bible I consult today, the New Revised Standard Version, alters the final clause: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” Between the two versions there is a world of difference, for the first expresses a belief in eternal life — to dwell forever! — while the second carries no such promise.
Whether or not there is a path to immortality, the knowledge that we will die motivates much of the behavior that distinguishes us from other animals. Without the fear of death, would we have invented religions? Would tyrants dream of thousand-year empires? Would philanthropists attach their names to buildings and institutions? Would artists fret about fame? More to the point of this review: Given our mortal knowledge, which runs like a somber thread through literature from “Gilgamesh” to the morning’s obituaries, is there anything new to say about death, any fresh insight to offer as we grieve the loss of loved ones and prepare for our own dying?
I wish I could answer yes on the evidence of “Happier Endings,” for Erica Brown has approached her subject like a diligent student, reading what others have written, interviewing experts for their opinions and survivors for their stories, recalling her own losses, and writing sympathetically about what she has learned. She brings to the subject experience as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and as the author of seven previous books, including “Inspired Jewish Leadership.”
In documenting her “search for the better death,” Brown cites dozens of sources, both religious and secular, ranging from the Hebrew Bible and a pair of medieval Christian texts, each titled “The Art of Dying Well,” up to more recent works by C.S. Lewis on bereavement, Jessica Mitford on the funeral industry, Ernest Becker on “the denial of death,” and volumes of practical advice bearing titles such as “Final Journeys,” “The Good Death” and “Good to Go.”
In the preface, she tries to clear a space for her own contribution by disagreeing, albeit cautiously, with the well-known schema for the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — laid out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in “On Death and Dying.” “The last, most potent stage or development within the framework of loss is not acceptance,” Brown argues. “It is inspiration. I humbly believe Kübler-Ross missed something in her categorization that may be the key to the fine art of dying well, if we can ever truly call it that.”
What Brown’s proposed final stage of “inspiration” amounts to, the book reveals, is any action or attitude that mitigates the indignity and finality of death. In pursuit of that goal, she discusses the mortuary business, views on the afterlife, near-death experiences, burial rites, suicide, bucket lists, legacies, ethical wills, deathbed apologies, hospice care, survivors’ guilt, prayer and grieving. About each topic she offers a digest, scrupulously referenced, of what others have written, as when she observes that “death is an industry like any other” or that “we have the capacity to keep people alive longer than they can maintain a desirable quality of life.”
Like much of the literature Brown quotes, “Happier Endings” brings a cheery note to a dreary subject. “I’ve learned to joke about death,” she writes, “to avoid the somber confrontation with it that happens so often.” Unfortunately, the humor often seems forced: “Disclaimer: I have not died and come back. That would be an instant bestseller.” “After all, dying isn’t like football; you don’t actually need a big field.”
Nor do you need to joke to write compellingly about death, as Brown demonstrates when she turns from upbeat counsel to solemn religious teachings. While she draws from other traditions — Hinduism on cremation, Buddhism on reincarnation, Christianity on forgiveness, Islam on graveside prayers — she writes most extensively, and movingly, out of her own tradition of Judaism.
For example, in an eloquent and revelatory passage she describes taking part in the Jewish practice of tahara, the ritual washing of a body before burial: “As we moved her and dressed her, holding her head — the holiest part of the body in Jewish tradition — made me feel like I was embracing a living, thinking, loving being, although all her functioning had stopped.”
Newborns do not realize they have entered the valley of the shadow of death, but sooner or later they will learn, as all of us do. And once we enter that valley, no matter how deep we bury the knowledge, no matter how thoroughly we distract ourselves, we never forget. We have no choice about being mortal, but we do have some freedom, as “Happier Endings” reminds us, in choosing how we live with this awareness and how we make our exit.
A Meditation on Life and Death
By Erica Brown
Simon & Schuster. 340 pp. $26