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On Our Way

On Our Way: The Final Passage through Life and Death

Robert Kastenbaum
Series: Life Passages
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 460
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  • Book Info
    On Our Way
    Book Description:

    How do our ideas about dying influence the way we live? Life has often been envisioned as a journey, the river of time carrying us inexorably toward the unknown country—and in our day we increasingly turn to myth and magic, ritual and virtual reality, cloning and cryostasis in the hope of eluding the reality of the inevitable end. In this book a preeminent and eminently wise writer on death and dying proposes a new way of understanding our last transition. A fresh exploration of the final passage through life and perhaps through death, his work deftly interweaves historical and contemporary experiences and reflections to demonstrate that we are always on our way. Drawing on a remarkable range of observations—from psychology, anthropology, religion, biology, and personal experience—Robert Kastenbaum re-envisions life's forward-looking progress, from early-childhood bedtime rituals to the many small rehearsals we stage for our final separation. Along the way he illuminates such moments and ideas as becoming a "corpsed person," going down to earth or up in flames, respecting or abusing (and eating) the dead, coping with "too many dead," conceiving and achieving a "good death," undertaking the journey of the dead, and learning to live through the scrimmage of daily life fully knowing that Eternity does not really come in a designer flask. Profound, insightful, often moving, this look at death as many cultures await it or approach it enriches our understanding of life as a never-ending passage.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92293-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. ONE HERE (?) WE ARE
    (pp. 1-24)

    Is it ritual or just routine to start the day with a cup of coffee? Routines are sequences that we have gone through before and most likely will go through again. A familiar routine is so well practiced that it hardly needs us at all. We can daydream or sing a television jingle as we dress in the morning (always slipping a foot into the left shoe first—or is it the right?). These routines can be solitary or interactive. Two individuals, each enacting personal routines, exchange the expected greetings as they meet once more in the workplace. The power...

  5. TWO PRACTICING DEATH: Some Rituals of Everyday Life
    (pp. 25-42)

    “And if I die before I wake”? What an idea to plant in a child’s mind! How comforting to suggest that one might not wake up! No breakfast, no hugs, no teasing sister or brother, no playing with pooch or kitty, and, worst of all, no television! What can be said in support of this once ubiquitous bedtime prayer?

    First, it affirms the comforting idea of a god who watches over us night and day and will be there for us should all else fail. In addition, children do think of loss, separation, abandonment, and death a lot more than...

  6. THREE GOOD DEATH, BAD DEATH (I): In Other Times and Places
    (pp. 43-92)

    I had spoken with Mr. Carter the previous morning. He didn’t have much to say and not much breath to say it with. We didn’t have to talk about death. That had become a worn-out topic. Life had been pretty much worn out, too, as can happen after more than ten years as a bed-and-chair resident in geriatric facilities. “Another day, another dollar,” he had wheezed. Now I was standing in a cool, sparkling-clean room two doors down from the converted broom closet that had become my office as psychologist. The consulting pathologist was completing the postmortem exam. He commented...

  7. FOUR GOOD DEATH, BAD DEATH (II): Here and Now
    (pp. 93-137)

    Humane and effective care of dying people has become a higher priority in recent years. The emergence of the hospice/palliative care movement, death education courses, peer support groups, and a useful clinical and scientific literature are all contributing to this welcome change. Unfortunately, though, many people still do not receive the benefits of comprehensive and skillful assistance and so experience stress and suffering that could have been prevented. In this chapter I focus on the aspects most relevant to our concern about the good death in our own times. I also discuss the deritualization and reritualization of the dying process...

    (pp. 138-175)

    This person is dead. By that, I mean the person we have known. The person who walked and talked, who toiled and loafed, quarreled and loved, suffered and enjoyed. The motionless, unresponsive body that remains seems but an empty shell. Where is our friend now? We are left with the same questions that survivors have always faced: What should be done with the physical remains? How should we interpret this death—and all deaths? How should we remember this person, and how should we go on now that this person is no longer with us?

    Most cultures have come up...

    (pp. 176-217)

    Why do we usually treat the dead well? There are plenty of good reasons. Here are some of them. First, we usually treat each other well, don’t we? Therefore, we are just being our polite, responsible, and caring selves when we do the same with those who are no longer with us in person.Continuity, then, is one plausible basis for treating the dead well.

    The dead have been deprived of life and therefore of all the experiences, opportunities, and satisfactions that life can offer. This loss is felt even more deeply when people seem to have died before their...

  10. SEVEN TOO MANY DEAD: The Plague and Other Mass Deaths
    (pp. 218-261)

    “Too many dead.” What does that mean? Sometimes we are reacting to an unexpectedly high toll of casualties. Consider the following scenarios:

    Commanding officers had calculated the approximate number of casualties that would occur in achieving an objective in a battle. Injuries and deaths were expected—but not so many. The responsible officers must now find a way to justify and compensate for the “excess casualties.”

    Authorities had recognized that a famine was probable. Measures to prevent or mitigate the famine would have diverted funds from projects of higher priority. In fact, a little famine here and there has some...

    (pp. 262-310)

    Church burial grounds . . . town graveyards . . . “memorial gardens.” In their various forms, cemeteries have been so familiar a part of the landscape that it has often been assumed simply that dead people get buried. More specifically, dead people get buried looking as lifelike as possible. Almost all corpses are embalmed in the United States. Cosmetic art is often applied by professional funeralists to reduce signs of the illness or trauma associated with the death. Care is also given to dressing the deceased either in a stylized respectable outfit or, under pressure from a new generation,...

    (pp. 311-354)

    Many people throughout the world still walk to the funeral site, along dusty rural paths or the cobblestoned streets of towns where for centuries their ancestors have lived and died. These processions may be silent or accompanied by traditional music. The corpse may be transported in a wagon or on the shoulders of kinsmen. The sense of participation in a journey from life to death is felt with every step, not smoothed over by a limousine ride that is part of a commercial funeral “package.”

    Laderman characterizes early-nineteenth-century New England burials in which there was the experience of both journey...

    (pp. 355-414)

    Howshould we live through? Answers are abundant, rising from the occasionally harmonious but more often cacophonic voices of history. Although differing in significant ways, all the proposed answers invoke a relationship between our lives and our deaths.

    Reflect at the end of each day about the certain ending of our days. Only keen and relentless awareness of our mortality can guide us past the temptations and perils on both sides of the grave.

    Keep the faith. The hopes that have kept our people going through the centuries are still good enough for us. Live through with the security of...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 415-428)
    (pp. 429-440)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 441-452)