© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2001
That death will happen to each of us is a given, but death is the subject we seem least comfortable discussing. People seem to be perfectly at ease talking about sexual escapades and heart problems, even gastrointestinal difficulties. If it's my terminal illness, however, I don't want people feeling sorry for me or imposed upon. If somebody else is sick, I don't wish to cause further discomfort or distress by mentioning it.
Death thus becomes the proverbial elephant in the parlor: enormous, present and impossibly evaded and ignored.
Today's cover stories encourage us to notice the elephant, to acknowledge it, to name it, to treat it well and even to draw some benefit from it.
My own encounters with death began in childhood. My father was a minister, and it was not uncommon for my sister, my brothers and me to attend funerals. Often we were acolytes for the services or sang in the church choir. Ours was a largely rural upbringing; in those days, the coffin typically was brought to the home of the deceased and lay open overnight. Friends and family descended upon the home with food enough to satisfy multitudes. A few, often men, sat up all night in the same room where the decedent was laid out.
Death was acknowledged, it was real, it was recognized in a ritual, and the whole community took part in the observance.
The stories in today's magazine offer some insights into how talking about death may benefit those who are facing it as well as those who will be left behind. Studs Terkel, whose books are extraordinary interviews about various aspects of people's lives, says that his latest work, the subject of which is death and dying, may be his most interesting.
During the past couple of months, many Americans have felt less sure of themselves and more frightened than they can remember. I hope these stories may offer enlightenment and inspiration.
On a different subject, regular readers of the St. Petersburg Times newsfeatures sections will have noticed some rearrangements and additions in some sections. The Needleworks column moves to Seniority with this issue.