Despite it being the one thing we all, regardless of race, gender, religious or political affiliation, have in common, death is the one thing no one seems to want to talk about. So goes the seemingly universal truth for much of modern society wherein the unavoidable is often prolonged well beyond when previous generations would’ve deemed necessary and yet it remains a sort of cultural taboo. With Lyn H. Lofland’s The Craft of Dying, published 40 years ago this year, this modern avoidance of an inevitable state of being is explored in greater detail. And, despite it’s having been published near the end of the “me decade,” its central thesis remains remarkably relevant today.

At its core, The Craft of Dying offers an examination of then contemporary views on death and dying. But each salient point continues to exist as part of the national non-discussion. Where previous generations merely acknowledged death as a part of life, we today do everything in our power to avoid it, prolonging life through the marvels of modern medicine and coming up with a range of descriptions for what has become a state of being. One hundred and fifty years ago, people died generally without being thought of as “dying”. In Lofland’s view, this is a 20th century construct that has arisen from the bureaucratization of death.

Those in a state of dying (or as she tends to awkwardly phrase it in quotes “being dying”) find themselves housed in institutional facilities set up and designed specifically for the purpose of placing the dying individual somewhere. Where before a loved one might’ve simply died in the home without much fanfare, today there are myriad options for end-of-life care and the prolongation of the life of a dying individual, often well beyond the point at which any sort of quality of life can be acknowledged. Indeed, Lofland points out the modernist idea of the living will and the power it affords the dying individual (or “actor” as she continuously labels these individuals for some reason) some semblance of control within a situation otherwise well beyond their control.

She goes on to highlight several instances in which the individual was able to control the time and manner of their own death, going out on their own terms, so to speak. The two examples she uses are both affluent, well-connected white men who, by all accounts, have the means to take matters into their own hands. Conversely, she examines the case of a lower-class woman who found herself at the mercy of the hospital system and completely without say in how her dying was to be handled, thus prolonging the pain, frustration and misery she had to endure. That this continues to be a major sociological divide shows just how firmly established the wealthy and elite’s hold on American society is, was and, without radical change, likely always will be.

To counter the taboo nature and secularization of death, Loflland explores what she refers to as the “happy death movement.” These include groups specializing in end-of-life care, counseling for both the dying, the dying and their families, as well as the bereaved, all of whom seek to make the experience of death as positive as possible. It’s not surprising that much of the movement arose at the start of the 1970s, springing up in the wake of the Age of Aquarius. And, indeed, much of what Lofland conveys regarding these groups reeks of hippie-dippy idealism and false positivity. But the fact of the matter remains that we all will die and no one can definitively say what happens after that.

Without saying as much, Lofland hints at this great unknown being the driving factor for the culture of fear and aversion surrounding the topic of death. Citing a handful of so-called near-death experiences wherein the individual recalls experiencing something resembling the idealized construct of an afterlife, the “happy death movement,” though ostensibly rooted in secularism, leans rather heavily on the spiritual without explicitly stating as such. Indeed, it’s a fine line to walk in terms of the tenuous nature of religious conversation within a secular context, but it proves how deeply rooted in spiritual vales our society remains.

Ultimately, The Craft of Dying offers a number of thought-provoking topics without ever really coming to any sort of real conclusions. In that, it’s as open-ended as death itself, left more or less to the individual to determine – to the best of their ability – the nature of their experience “being dying.”

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