This is the End, My Friend?

Are people getting more upbeat about death?

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Timothy Leary was dying, and he was having the time of his life. Diagnosed in January 1995 with terminal prostate cancer, the bubbly 74-year-old LSD guru was living it up with friends and planning his demise with humor and practicality. For example, he wore a metal wrist bracelet with the name and number of a cryonics firm on it and on the other wrist, reports the Los Angeles Times, a bracelet with a rival cryonics firm's number. 'I want to keep my options open,' Leary said. He also said he wanted to pass on conventional burial -- when he drove past a veteran's cemetery where the rows of gravestones 'gave me the creeps ... It looks like they were all index cards.'

Leary viewed dying as 'the third act ... the final scene of the glorious epic of your life,' and believed that 'how you die is the most important thing you do.' He's not the only one -- there's unprecedented interest these days in death, perhaps because many in a generation influenced by 'mindful death' writings and the revival of dying at home are themselves facing the final decades. 'Chances are you're bugged by death, too, especially if you've attended your 'Lordy, Lordy, I can't believe I'm 40' birthday wake,' writes Mark Wheeler in Discover's (June 1995) reliably funny 'Light Elements' column. 'Indeed, it's got me thinking like 120-year-old Jeanne Calment, the world's oldest human, who when asked what kind of future she expected, replied, 'A very short one.' '

While not everyone's laughing, they are talking turkey about death, a subject that until 1995 had been as Leary notes, 'a taboo topic.' Bestsellers such as How We Die are flying off the shelf, and listeners flock to places such as the New York Open Center for lectures on 'The Art of Dying' by Kenneth Ring (near-death expert) and Therese Schroeder-Sheker ('musical midwife' to death). More are bypassing funeral homes to create new at-home goodbye rituals, reports Jeff Elliott in New Age (March/April 1995). Guides like Lisa Carlson's Caring for Your Own Dead list all the technical details for do-it-yourselfers who can personalize death as they wish: 'Grandpa liked Hershey bars about as good as anything the last few years. So we stuck one in his shirt pocket, put a straw hat on his head, and laid him gently into his pine and cedar casket,' notes one participant in NEW AGE.

For those who want to practice 'voluntary dying,' online resources are flourishing.

And could it be that as death edges nearer, more of us warm to notions of our post-death presence? Maybe that explains the fascination with angels -- not a bad afterlife, that; no bills and effortless flying, with the occasional guest appearance. Maybe we'll be around the way the Moody Blues (how'd they know?) prophesized in some song back when: 'Timothy Leary's dead/no, no-no-no, he's outside, looking in.'

8/15/2010 12:39:58 PM

Upbeat about death? Check out Casket Notes pinback buttons on Etsy or eBay. Their slogan is "Wear 'em now, wear 'em when you're dead." Pretty funny.

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