success stories

Posted May 18, 2004

Book: On Our Way: The Final Passage Through Life and Death
Author: Robert Kastenbaum
University of California Press, California, pp.452

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Life often has 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 death, his work deftly interweaves historical and contemporary experiences and reflections to demonstrate that we are always on our way.

Drawing upon a remarkable range of observations — from psychology, anthropology, religion, biology, and personal experience — Robert Kastenbaum re-envisions life’s forward-looking progression, 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, and often moving, this look into the coming of death as many cultures await it or approach it enriches our understanding of life as a never-ending passage.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Practicing Death

Some Rituals of Everyday Life

The unknown often arouses an uneasy blend of excitement, hope and dread. “Be gentle with me. It’s my first time.” can apply to situations other than a farewell to virginity. What will it be like to move away from the old neighborhood: to leave the familiar companions and routines of home? To leave school for the workplace? To retire after so many years of work? Life is replete with endings and beginnings that could provide partial rehearsals for the final passage to Hamlet’s “unknown territory. Here I explore a few of the experiences with life that foreshadow our encounters with loss, separation, and death. The examples included bedtime rituals, religious and philosophical conceptions of the relationship between the quotidian and the cosmic, and the symbolism found in funeral and memorial rituals. Perhaps we will discover hints from everyday life that the final passage and its rituals are not entirely without precedent.

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

“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 most adults realize. Trying to make sense out of death is a significant part of mental and emotional development from early childhood onward. The “Now I lay me down” formula recognizes the child’s vulnerability to separation anxiety and thereby offers some comfort. Anxiety about abandonment shows itself almost immediately and can be triggered by even such small happenings as Mother leaving the room for a few minutes. The little ones are not being spoiled or neurotic when they seek the reassurance of an adult presence: their survival pretty much depends on it.

Table of Contents:

1. Here (?) We Are

2. Practicing death: some rituals of everyday life

3. Good death, bad death (I): In other times and places

4. God death, bad death (II): Here and now

5. Corpsed persons

6. Abusing and eating the dead

7. Too many dead: The plague and other mass deaths

8. Down to earth and up in flames

9. Journey of the dead

10. Living through