In November 1998, millions of television viewers watched as
Thomas Youk died. Suffering from the late stages of Lou Gehrig's
disease, Youk had called upon infamous Michigan pathologist Dr.
Jack Kevorkian to help end his life on his own terms. After
delivering the videotape to 60 Minutes, Kevorkian was
arrested and convicted of manslaughter, despite the fact that
Youk's family firmly believed that the ending of his life qualified
as a good death.
Death is political, as the controversies surrounding Jack Kevorkian
and, more recently, Terri Schiavo have shown. While death is a
natural event, modern end-of-life experiences are shaped by new
medical, demographic, and cultural trends. People who are dying are
kept alive, sometimes against their will or the will of their
family, with powerful medications, machines, and "heroic measures."
Current research on end-of-life issues is substantial, involving
many fields. Beyond the Good Death takes an
anthropological approach, examining the changes in our concept of
death over the last several decades. As author James W. Green
determines, the attitudes of today's baby boomers differ greatly
from those of their parents and grandparents, who spoke politely
and in hushed voices of those who had "passed away." Dr. Elisabeth
Kübler-Ross, in the 1960s, gave the public a new language for
speaking openly about death with her "five steps of dying." If we
talked more about death, she emphasized, it would become less
fearful for everyone.
The term "good death" reentered the public consciousness as
narratives of AIDS, cancer, and other chronic diseases were
featured on talk shows and in popular books such as the
best-selling Tuesdays with Morrie. Green looks at a number
of contemporary secular American death practices that are still
informed by an ancient religious ethos. Most important, Beyond
the Good Death provides an interpretation of the ways in which
Americans react when death is at hand for themselves or for those
they care about.
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