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Death Be Not Unpublishable
The Literature of Good Grief

Let's all share a sardonic chuckle over this cosmic paradox: At the height of its global ascendancy, supposedly optimistic and youth-obsessed America is now also increasingly fixated on death.

It's no mystery: As the population ages, intimations of mortality are focusing minds. This -- at the end of the millennium no less -- helps to explain not just the vogue for mysticism and attendant claptrap, but also why the folks at "60 Minutes" last week figured that showing a mercy killing by Dr. Jack Kevorkian after Sunday dinner would be good for ratings (followed by the soothing otherworldly series "Touched by an Angel").

America's No. 1 heartthrob, Brad Pitt, has been cast as the Grim Reaper in "Meet Joe Black." And Robin Williams, arguably the country's funniest person, plays a serious dead guy who rescues his dead wife from hell in the New Age tear-jerker "What Dreams May Come." The films may be bombs, but they affirm that Hollywood, ever fond of bloody murder, is adjusting its mortal mix to try and cash in on the public mood.

Alas, the fixation on mortality means a lot of trees have to die too. And not just because of best-sellers like "Tuesdays With Morrie" (Doubleday, 1997) by Mitch Ablom, about a sportswriter's visits with his dying mentor; "How We Die" (Knopf, 1993) by Sherwin B. Nuland, or the books of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, champion of the hospice movement.

When a subject is hot -- actually, cold, in this case -- the publishing industry stands ready to serve it up for different audiences. Here is a sampling from dozens of recent books on death and bereavement.

-- By TOM KUNTZ

DEATH BOOK 1: "Living With the End in Mind: A Practical Checklist for Living Life to the Fullest by Embracing Your Mortality" (Three Rivers Press, 1998) by Erin Tierney Kramp and Douglas H. Kramp, with Emily P. McKhann.

The gist, from the cover blurb: A life-affirming look at preparing yourself and your loved ones for the inevitable. . . . The inspiring couple who have co-authored this book have already garnered widespread media coverage, from "20/20" to "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Sample Bit of Advice:

Casually drive through the cemetery of your choice with your children or grandchildren so it is familiar.

We took our daughter to the cemetery on a beautiful, spring day to talk about the burial process. A burial was taking place nearby, and we pointed out the different stages of funerals. We said, "Look, someone already went to heaven, and now they are burying the body. . . ."

DEATH BOOK 2: "The True Work of Dying: A Practical and Compassionate Guide to Easing the Dying Process" (Avon, 1997) by Jan Selliken Bernard and Miriam Schnieder.

The gist, from the cover blurb: This groundbreaking, holistic guide presents rare insights and reassuring practical advice on how to navigate the final weeks before death.

Interesting coinage: Home deathing.

Quote: Just as a little bit of home has been brought to the birthing room, we believe medical institutions and families should make the same effort to bring "home" to the "deathing room," wherever it may be.

DEATH BOOK 3: "Then an Angel Came: A Family's Inspiring True Story of Loss and Renewal" (Kensington, 1997) by Carol Gino.

The gist: An "unforgettable true story" (cover blurb) about a grieving family saved by an angel -- a very large angel -- after an infant's death.

Confusing description of angel: "I mean, she wasn't only big, she was magnificent. Skyscrapers are big, but mountains have something extra. Well, this angel was like the Himalayas, she was like the Grand Canyon, she was like . . ."

DEATH BOOK 4:"How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife" (2d edition, The Charles Press, 1998), edited by Christopher Jay Johnson, Ph.D., and Marsha G. McGee, Ph.D.

The gist, from the cover blurb: The teaching and death beliefs of the largest and fastest-growing religions in North America.

Unsettling question answered: "Is There a Hell and, if So, What Is It Like?"

Some of the book's answers, by religion:

Roman Catholics: Hell designates a condition of self-chosen, permanent alienation from God, who bestows all blessings.

Jews: The assumption is that God's caring nature rules out a sadistic punishment. The nature of hell is a mystery left alone by the Jew.

Baptists: Most Southern Baptists believe in a place of punishment as it is described in the Bible, characterized by outer darkness, fire, torment and isolation.

Buddhists: There are eight hot and cold hells, each associated with a particular type of suffering. These tortures are described in detail in order to develop compassion for the beings there as well as to create an incentive not to engage in the types of nonvirtuous behavior that will cause one to end up there.

Muslims: Hell is described as a fire having seven levels. The lowest crackles and roars with fierce boiling water, scorching wind and wailing, wretched souls.

DEATH BOOK 5: "What Happens When You Die, From Your Last Breath to the First Spadeful" (Citadel Press, 1995) by Robert T. Hatch.

The gist: Your handy guide to embalming and cremation, with alternatives "including mummification -- and much more" (cover blurb).

Unsettling information: The book summarizes the major forms of bodily decay, including dessication:

Dessication: The drying of certain parts, such as the cornea of the eye, is usually a sure indication of death. As the fluids sink to the back of the eye, the cornea dries out, glazes over and becomes wrinkled. This dryness may also be observed over abrasions or wounds. The lips also become hard and reddish black in color.

DEATH BOOK 6: "I'm Grieving as Fast as I Can: How Young Widows and Widowers Can Cope and Heal" (New Horizon Press, 1994) by Linda Feinberg.

The gist: Losing a spouse is bad enough when you're old, but when you're young it is also no picnic, for different reasons.

Quotes That Make You Go, "Hmmm . . .":

Widower:

I knew when my wife died that there would be many humps to climb over. I just didn't know there would be so many bumps in the humps.

The author on a type of guilt:

Guilty guilt is when people feel guilty about feeling guilty and it goes on indefinitely.

And on widows' misconceptions about sex:

I have treated two 48-year-old widowed women who thought that when a man has an erection, it is like raising an arm. Not true.

DEATH BOOK 7: "My Life After Dying: Becoming Alive to Universal Love" (Hampton Roads, 1991) by George G. Ritchie Jr., M.D.

The gist, from the cover blurb: In December 1943, 20-year-old Army private George Ritchie died of pneumonia. Nine minutes later, he came back -- profoundly changed.

Out-of-body experience: The author goes airborne after leaving his body behind in his deathbed, but he soon gets lost and has to ask for directions:

I came down closer to the ground when I noticed a bright blue color coming from a Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer neon sign in front of a white cafe. . . . I saw a tall, thin man, bundled in a dark overcoat coming up the sidewalk heading toward the door of this cafe.

I lit down about 12 feet in front of him. . . ."What is the name of this city? Do you know where Richmond, Va., is and in what direction I should go to get there?"

For the second time that night, here was another man who acted as though he could neither see nor hear me.

In fact, he also walked right through me.

DEATH BOOK 8: "Kaddish" (Knopf, 1998) by Leon Weiseltier.

The gist: After the death of his father, the literary editor of The New Republic goes long, deep and discursive about Jewish mourning.

Dream interpretation: I am walking in Oak Hill graveyard in Georgetown. It is night. Near the little stone chapel I meet a man in a pinstripe suit and shiny shoes. In each hand he carries a legal briefcase. His face is streaked with soot. He asks for my help. Both his briefcases are filled with wood, and he is seeking somebody to carry the rest of what he has gathered. My interpretation of my dream: I am possessed by my texts, and I believe that lawyers are sinners.

DEATH BOOK 9: "The Courage to Laugh: Humor, Hope and Healing in the Face of Death and Dying" (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998) by Allen Klein.

The gist: Humor trumps grief.

Funny tombstone inscription:

Here
Lies
Lester Moore
Four slugs
from a 44
No Les
No more

Quote, from the comedian Moms Mabley: They say you shouldn't say nothing about the dead unless it's good. He's dead. Good.

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