Palmer gives us a lively tour of 'Death'

December 29, 1993|By Michael Anft | Michael Anft,Contributing Writer

What, exactly, is death?

Greg Palmer isn't much more sure than you are, but it isn't for lack of trying.

In this literary adaptation of his well-received PBS miniseries, the television features reporter-turned-author ponders the questions we'd rather not think about -- at least until we absolutely have to.

But "Death" isn't a philosophical discussion of how to view life's end or the hereafter. Nor is it a cross-cultural examination of death rituals. Nor is it a tome that explores circumventing death through special regimens or the ultimate cop-out -- cryonics.

Those topics are well-represented, but Mr. Palmer is canny enough to admit to no particular expertise. He's just an observer, enjoying the absurdity in our response to death while feeling the same pinch of mortality. "Death" isn't so much a manual of accumulated lore as one man's journey through its foreboding, sometimes amusing landscape. (Hence, I suspect, the wince-inducing title.)

Mr. Palmer is a reliable guide. Neither morose nor coyly dismissive in his narrative, the author largely avoids the TV-news "cutes" in his descriptions. He loses focus only once, during a meandering, meaningless chapter on graveyard tours called "Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous."

Mr. Palmer understands that Western civilization is as attracted to death as much as it is scared to death of it, especially in its popular culture. "It's similar to the way most children are fascinated by dinosaurs," he writes, adding, "A reptile house without poisonous reptiles is a lonely place indeed, as lonely as Sea World without the killer whales."

But Mr. Palmer's culture isn't the only one that has made a fetish of mortality to the point of all but killing it. Millions of Mexicans polish gravestones and make macabre altars during Night of the Dead rituals. Ghanaian fetish priests lead garish, ancient processionals. The Taiwanese burn paper boats and conduct firecracker cacophonies to scare off/appease ancestors as part of their Ghost Festival.

To many outsiders these festivals and funerals may as well be outtakes from the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy." But Mr. Palmer doesn't just describe the activities (although he does that well) -- he frames them around a quote borrowed from Arthur Miller's Mrs. Loman: "Attention must be paid."

In other words, while buried Westerners are remembered quietly after the final eulogy has been uttered (if they're lucky), the long-dead and gone of other peoples still inspire celebration. It's not an earth-shattering observation, but at least it's the right one.

So is Mr. Palmer's assertion that death is treated like "a part of life" in places where dinosaurs are rarely thought of.

After his stab at anthropology, Mr. Palmer returns to his home base, but he branches out all over the place. He spends time with a dying man to learn his thoughts and those of his family; views an embalming; visits a hospice; meditates on the social changes portended by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and discusses the afterlife with religious leaders.

The subjects are gruesome, but Mr. Palmer's touch is light enough to let us know he feels the same nervousness that we do about them. Laughing about it, Mr. Palmer seems to be saying, is about the only defense mechanism we have -- although that doesn't work, either, just like preventive planning.

"Reportedly," the author writes, "Howard Hughes in his later years went to extraordinary expense to live in a germ-free environment. You know, the Howard Hughes who is now dead."

In the end, Mr. Palmer notes that even being "paid attention" might not be much solace: " 'What's that to me? I'll be dead!' is a legitimate complaint." But, he adds, "Knowing we will live on in any way has been a comfort to human beings since there were human beings, and we should take comfort where we can." Even in death.

Still, the question lingers like a tiresome party guest: What is death? Well, as Grandpa might have told you shortly before he went beyond the veil, some things you just can't learn from

books. Even ones as comprehensive as this one.

Anft is a writer who lives, for the time being, in Baltimore.)

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Death: The Trip of a Lifetime"

Author: Greg Palmer

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 287 pages, $23

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