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Putting Death to Rest


Hello from Quinter, Kansas.  This is Valerie Brown-Kuchera, helping to pass on (no pun intended) some of the ideas generated by Being Mortal, the first book in our Fall Read theme: “Let’s Talk – Aging, Death, and Dying.”

The author, Boston surgeon Atul Gawande, discusses our culture’s approach to death and makes the case that we may have “medicalized” mortality to a psychologically unhealthy level. 

The book highlights how we have moved toward extending our lives using modern medical interventions and away from a more spiritual contemplation of death.

In his thoughtful exploration of the inevitable end of every living creature, Gawande gives an overview of gerontology, nursing homes, ICUs, long-term care or assisted living facilities and multigenerational homes.

He suggests that perhaps our ultimate goal should be, “not a good death, but a good life to the very end.” Gawande states, "Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don't want a general [a doctor] who fights to the point of total annihilation." Throughout Gawande’s book, the inevitability of death isn’t questioned, of course. 

In another book I have recently read, the inevitability of death IS questioned.  I’d like to draw a connection between Gawande’s non-fiction memoir to a sci-fi book for young adults, in order to explore how humans might respond were the certainty of death removed from our psychological makeup.  I’ve been reading a fairly new series of books by Neil Schusterman with my 12-year-old son.  The first book in the series, Scythe, introduces a futuristic world in which humans have entered the “Post-Mortal Age.”

Science has solved death, and humans can merely “reset” when they want to go back to a certain physical age.  At this stage of my life, I’m fascinated by the idea of being able to look 30 again, but my son is more intrigued by the main characters, the scythes, whose job it is to “glean” a certain quota of humans each year.  In the world of Scythe, science may have eliminated death, but it hasn’t yet found a way to make earth capable of sustaining an immortal population, members of which can continue to reproduce into to their hundreds.  Picture having children the same age as your great-great-grandchildren.  In Schusterman’s imagined world, scythes are charged with the task of fairly and compassionately keeping the planet’s population in check, as directed by the Thunderhead, a massive, artificially intelligent being that sets up quotas based on infallible calculations.

So, how does a memoir about death relate to a fictional, dystopian novel in which death isn’t considered inevitable or even probable?  Though Schusterman’s novel is a far cry from the “medicalized” mortality discussed in Gawande’s work, I couldn’t help but see crossover among ideas.  In the fictional, deathless world, creativity is nonexistent.  Boredom has firmly set in.  Moving through the stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does not happen, because self-actualization can’t occur among people who are not motivated by the passage of time and “grave” thoughts.  People in the Post-Mortal Age do not set goals.  

Now, I’m not suggesting that reading these two books as companions have cured me of thanatophobia.  But I do think to look at death with a bit of Zen helps to face the unknown with a calmer, healthier mind. I also believe that Gawande’s book moderates the extremes, and could comfort and guide those who are dealing with terminal illness in themselves or a loved one. 

Do the challenges of life make it worth living? Is “time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” after all, what makes it so gorgeous and meaningful? Being Mortal’s subtitle, Medicine and What Matters in the End, reminds me of the suggestion in Schusterman’s book that if there is no end, nothing matters. 

I’m Valerie Brown-Kuchera for the Radio Readers’ Book Club.  This is our 2018 Fall Read – “Let’s Talk – Aging, Death, and Dying.”  To find out more about the Radio Readers’ Book Club, visit HPPR.org.  Or “like” us on Facebook under HPPR Radio Readers.