Living with Death

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a

By Studs Terkel. New Press, 407 pages, $25.95

Studs Terkel, that national treasure, has provided
us another gift in Will
the Circle Be Unbroken?
As Studs says (to the best of my knowledge, no one
has ever called him "Mr. Terkel"), when you're going on 89, death is something
you think about a lot. But this is the book that he thought he'd never produce:
"It was too big for me; too abstract. It was more in the domain of the
metaphysician or the minister," he writes. "My works had been concerned with life
and its uncertainties rather than death and its indubitable certainty."

Studs Terkel writes books by letting other people talk. It is his special
genius to mine gold from "ordinary" people. In an age besotted with celebrity,
Studs listens to the "common man"; like Whitman, he hears America singing and
celebrates the song. Since ordinary people are so frequently possessed of rich
life experiences and amazing gifts of expression, his books are always a joy. The
man never met a stranger, and the range of people he can call on and get to talk,
even about something as big and as abstract as death, is remarkable: pastor,
poet, schoolteacher, actress, adman, atheist, old hooker, city sanitation worker,
black, white, Hispanic, male, female, and indeterminate.

There are those with some professional relationship to death--fireman,
policeman, nurse, doctor, AIDS worker, rabbi--who of necessity have had to find a
framework to deal with it. There are those who have come close to death and, of
course, all of us who have experienced loss. Studs's wonderful wife Ida died two
years ago; he recalls a friend who tried to cheer him up by saying, "For
chrissake, you've had sixty great years with her!" To which Studs notes: "It
doesn't cut the mustard, Charlie." (One of the joys of Studs Terkel is his
effortless mastery of the American idiom; of his mother, who "fought out her days
in a nursing home," he writes: "She hung up her gloves at eighty-seven.") Just
because someone dies at a ripe old age is no consolation for the heartbreak.

True to conventional wisdom, the saddest stories are those of parents who have
lost their children--stories rivaled by those of parents who disown their
children because of AIDS. It may well be that the most grown-up people in this
country today are in the gay community, because they have seen so much death,
have had to deal with being surrounded by it. I found the story of Tammy Snider,
a Hiroshima survivor, almost unbearable and her resolution of how to find meaning
in those memories profoundly moving.

One of the few "names" in the book is Kurt Vonnegut, the author, with some
astonishingly pertinent things to say about vengeance.

The fact that forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass
against us isn't honored more--I blame that on writers. Because the easy story to
tell is the vengeance story, and it's known to satisfy. This guy shot my brother.
How's the story gonna wind up? And what does a reader think? OK, that's settled.
So it's just the easiest of all stories to tell. So it in fact encourages, makes
reputable vengeance.

And then there's this story told by comedian Mike Betancourt:

I'm afraid that when I die and go to Heaven, I'll walk in and the lights will
be off. All of a sudden the lights come on and all my dead relatives yell,
"Surprise!!!" As I'm crying with overflowing joy, the Devil walks out and says,
"That trick never gets old. All right you bastards, back to work!"

On the assessment of this extraordinary collection of Everyman and Everywoman,
is there any sense to be made of death? Yes; indeed, almost all of them seem to
have found satisfactory answers to it. But they're not the same answers. Those
with deep religious faith and those who intensely dislike religion seem to find
equally useful ways of coping. I especially liked a couple of the storytellers
who are quite cheerful about having no answers. Tom Gates, a retired Brooklyn
firefighter, says:

I'm not going to worry about any hereafter.... Suppose somebody said, "You
can be alive forever, but you gotta drive through the Holland Tunnel the rest of
your life"? What would you do? Would you want to live forever driving through
the Holland Tunnel?

In his brilliant work The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker points out
that we live in a culture in which death is hidden and discussion of it avoided.
We know that control, power, and money will not make us immortal, but we live as
though they would. Consequently, we are hungry for ways to make sense of
death--as demonstrated in the wake of September 11 by the renewed popularity of
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner's book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Living in a death-obsessed culture is clearly no better. As Jessica Mitford
once remarked about ancient Egypt: "Now there was a culture where they let the
funeral directors get completely out of control." I've always liked the
Mexican tradition of seeing death in life, grinning at you from the oddest
places. And the Irish tradition of laughing and drinking at wakes.

We seem to have arrived at the opposite of Victorian culture, where everybody
talked about death and nobody talked about sex. On the whole, I suppose it's an
improvement. But it makes death such a dreadful shock when it does come--a bit
like the September 11 attacks, which were stunning because we had been paying so
little attention. The world didn't change; it just came a lot closer. So will