- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
words said during the imposition of ashes during an Episcopal Ash Wednesday service

This liturgy from "The Book of Common Prayer" or words similar to them will be said over the foreheads of millions of Christians today as they line up for the "imposition of ashes," an integral part of Ash Wednesday.
The solemn service begins Lent, a six-week church season of penitence, abstinence, fasting and focus on one's eventual death, a topic most Americans would prefer not to think about.
"Most other cultures see death as part of the whole life experience, but in our country, we hide behind terminology," says Dana G. Cable, professor of psychology at Hood College in Frederick, Md.
"We 'go to our eternal rest,' we 'expire' instead of die in the hospital and in funeral homes, you are put in the 'slumber room,'" he says. "We say people 'pass away' instead of die. We have 'memorial services' for them. All this language avoids facing the reality of the truth. We try to avoid emotion, but traditional funerals do evoke emotion."
Most Americans, certainly pre-September 11, hesitate to reflect on death until forced to. Their way of processing grief is mindless, Joe Queenan relates in his new book, "Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation."
"It's no secret Baby Boomers have a hard time dealing with death," he writes. "A generation whose primary cultural artifact is the Filofax has enormous difficulty shoehorning death into its schedule. It's inconvenient, time-consuming and stressful. 'We don't have time to die this afternoon; Caitlin has ballet.' They never could have handled the onerous demands of the Black Death: 'So much bubonic plague, so little time.'
"But one also senses a fundamental resentment of the arbitrariness of the universe; if we can get our lives running on schedule, why can't our Higher Power?"
When Ruth Harrison, a nursing professor, taught a course on the "spiritual dimensions" of nursing last semester at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., she noticed a resistance even among nurses in talking about death.
"Americans generally don't want to," she says. "I had several movies about hospice care, people going through the hospice process and dealing with death, and they wanted me to lighten up the topic by the end of class so they would not go home depressed. But death is a part of life. We all are going to die, and it should be something we are ready for."
Unlike war or famine-ridden parts of the world, Americans avoid the topic because survival isn't a day-to-day worry.
"We are not facing death all around us," Miss Harrison says. "We have so many protections. Snow slides, avalanches, car accidents that happens to one or two people we know. Even with cancer, you hear mostly about survivors. Same with HIV and AIDS."
What people do encounter is dead animals, a phenomenon that Tucson, Ariz., photographer Kate Breakey chronicles in her new book, "Small Deaths." Her photos of "small dead things," mainly birds, flowers, butterflies, lizards and dragonflies, is her effort to personalize the little deaths people ignore.
"I have always felt great sympathy for the creatures that were doomed, the flightless fledgling birds that prematurely fluttered down from their nests, all gawky innocence, ignorant of the horrible fact that they don't have a chance too new to the world to be afraid of it," she writes. "It is human to want to change their odds, to intervene, to rescue, to hope for them."
The smallness of a thing, she says, does not dampen its worth.
"I am treating them like individuals," she said in an interview. "They represent all of the deaths we do manage to disregard. We hear there is a famine in some African country, and we disregard that because it's on the other side of the world. As for the bird, it's dying right there in front of you."
September 11 brought death into the collective face of the nation, says Christine Quigley, author of "Death Dictionary: A History of the Corpse."
"I've noticed people are much more forthcoming with their feelings since September 11," she says. "They are letting people they love know that they love them. And people are postponing things less. Now if people want to make a trip, they make it. There's a lack of procrastination because they know now something may happen in the meantime."
But they are edgy about preparing for their own demise, says the Rev. Andrew Sloane of St. Paul's, K Street, an Episcopal parish in the District. Each November he teaches a series on how to plan one's own funeral service and draw up a will. It's not exactly a hit with parishioners.
"I think we've got 75 instructions on file out of a parish of 660, so 90 percent believe they are immortal," he says jokingly. "Which worries me. But we plug away at it."
Mr. Cable, a professor of thanatology the study of death and dying says Americans' lack of death awareness stems from their mobile nature, which makes it hard for families to visit grave sites of their loved ones. What used to be a Sunday afternoon custom, when families would make weekly visits to relatives' grave sites to tidy them up, has faded into a yearly habit, if that. Plus, the popularity of cremation has made such visits increasingly rare.
Nevertheless, he makes his undergraduate classes visit several cemeteries. "With college students, it's amazing how many of them have never been to a cemetery," he says. "Many people are not exposed to death early in life. But that's because we've promoted death as not real."
"Most countries think Americans deal with death in the strangest way of any culture in the world," says University of Arizona emergency medicine professor Dr. Kenneth V. Iserson. "It's the last great taboo. We fictionalize it to the point where it is not real. For instance, we embalm our dead, draining the corpse with blood and replacing that with chemicals, just to preserve it so you can have an open casket at the funeral.
"Before World War II, people died at home and were born at home. Now these processes have been medicalized. They've become really strange something people are very uncomfortable with."
Dr. Iserson, whose 1994 book, "From Death to Dust, What Happens to Dead Bodies," is now in its second edition, says even health care workers hesitate to use the "D-word."
"The euphemisms we have in medicine for death are unbelievable," he says. "Like, 'Well, we lost him.' Or, 'it's over.' Or 'let's call it,' if a resuscitation effort fails." Even in the movies, dead people are cleaned up. Americans have a very sanitized view of what happens, what I called the roadrunner effect: when the pursuing wolf is squished but pops back up and goes on."

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