Dying in Character
Memoirs on the End of Life
How writers approaching death seek to affirm the values that have guided their lives
In the past twenty years, an increasing number of authors have written memoirs focusing on the last stage of their lives: Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, for example, in The Wheel of Life, Harold Brodkey in This Wild Darkness, Edward Said in Out of Place, and Tony Judt in The Memory Chalet. In these and other end-of-life memoirs, writers not only confront their own mortality but in most cases struggle to “die in character”—that is, to affirm the values, beliefs, and goals that have characterized their lives.
Examining the works cited above, as well as memoirs by Mitch Albom, Roland Barthes, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Art Buchwald, Randy Pausch, David Rieff, Philip Roth, and Morrie Schwartz, Jeffrey Berman’s analysis of this growing genre yields some surprising insights. While the authors have much to say about the loneliness and pain of dying, many also convey joy, fulfillment, and gratitude. Harold Brodkey is willing to die as long as his writings survive. Art Buchwald and Randy Pausch both use the word fun to describe their dying experiences. Dying was not fun for Morrie Schwartz and Tony Judt, but they reveal courage, satisfaction, and fearlessness during the final stage of their lives, when they are nearly paralyzed by their illnesses.
It is hard to imagine that these writers could feel so upbeat in their situations, but their memoirs are authentically affirmative. They see death coming, yet they remain stalwart and focused on their writing. Berman concludes that the contemporary end-of-life memoir can thus be understood as a new form of death ritual, “a secular example of the long tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying.”
"Condemn the farewell letter as a narcissistic attempt at immortality or the final act of a control freak if you wish, but it offers benefits to both the dying and the bereaved. . . . As readers, Mr. Berman says, we learn from these terminal accounts how 'other people have coped' in a situation that 'we will all confront.' And that can't be a bad thing in an aging society."—The Globe and Mail
"[Berman] has found an approach that balances personal experience and disclosure with scholarly discipline and compassionate attention, creating an engaging tone. . . . Berman’s sharp, compelling study of books that squarely face the true experience of imminent death is an important contribution to the literature of the end of life."—Boston Globe
"Author of numerous previous titles, Berman has put together another compelling, readable book. . . . Arguably, Berman's lengthy chapter on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, renowned for her theory on the stages of grief surrounding death, is the most illuminating and exhaustive, thanks in part to her many published works,including her own end-of-life memoir (The Wheel of Life, 1997). The chapter on Philip Roth's Patrimony is thoroughand deeply psychoanalytical. Recommended."—Choice