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Summer Books

The one experience none of us has had yet

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


The chief appeal of Studs Terkel’s work has always lain in his genius for finding people from a broad spectrum of American society and evoking from them, regardless of education, experience or socioeconomic status, often eloquent and occasionally astonishing meditations upon some of life’s most fundamental elements: our work, our communities, our aspirations and human interactions. Always before, however, he has asked his informants -- “mostly the uncelebrated, heroes of the ‘ordinary’ ” -- to recount episodes from their diverse histories. In Will the Circle Be Unbroken? he shifts perspective, asking, “What about the one experience none of us has had, yet all of us will have: death?”

It is the sole absolute in human existence, of course. One may or may not hold a job, fall in love, dwell in the city or in the country, spend one’s life in poverty or wealth or vacillate between the two, suffer illness or enjoy robust health. But one will certainly die. Early or late, by accident or illness, alone or in the company of friends or strangers, in anger, bitterness, relief, tranquility or hope, we will achieve life’s culmination. “Why not speak of it while we’re in the flower of good health?” Terkel asks. “How can we envision our life, the one we now experience, unless we recognize that it is finite?”

Direct discussion of death tends to be taboo in most sectors of American society. As retired teacher Helen Sclair puts it, “Death has become the new pornography. We don’t talk about it.” Nevertheless, she and the other speakers in Terkel’s book hardly seem reticent. Truth to tell, most of us probably think about the topic more often than we may care to admit, even to ourselves, and might welcome the opportunity they have been given to articulate our speculations about our inevitable yet unimaginable end. Indeed, perhaps the greatest value Will the Circle Be Unbroken? may hold lies in the permission it grants and the stimulation it offers the reader for engaging in deep personal reflection.

Despite the universality of the event itself, Terkel’s 64 respondents relate to it in ways almost as varied as they are. They come from many walks of life: a cardiologist, a rabbi, an architect, a city sanitation worker and an undertaker, among many others. A few, like writer Kurt Vonnegut and actress Uta Hagen, are well known. Most are not.

Some encounter death routinely in their personal or professional lives; for others, it’s a singular occurrence, whether shattering or transformative. There are flashes of humor, like firefighter Tom Gates’ recollection of a colleague’s close encounter: “I said to him, ‘Paul, did you talk to God?’ I don’t believe really in churches … but there could be somebody out there. Paul said, ‘Listen, I thought I was dying, so I gave God a couple of shouts.’ You couldn’t do better than that.”

Even the saddest tales are more moving and enlightening than depressing.

One drawback to Terkel’s method of including relatively short reflections from a large number is that the voices and their tales tend to blur. Even so, certain figures stand out. One voice that comes to mind belongs to Pete Haywood, shot and left for dead by a rival gang member in the elevator of a Chicago public housing project, who forgave his assailant and refused to retaliate. Matta Kelly, once a drug addict and prostitute who became a caseworker, compellingly narrates the death of her client Norma, who though born a man always lived as a woman and, thanks to Matta, died as one, too. Recalling the tortured death of a young friend with AIDS, Lori Cannon reports starkly: “I closed his mouth, I pinched his nose, and that was it.” The mother of Emmett Till, Mamie Mobley describes her horrific inspection of her child’s mutilated body. The lyrics that folksinger Rosalie Sorrels wrote for her son who committed suicide are worth the price of the book.

A common thread binds these diverse narratives: a profound sense of death’s spiritual significance. For some, this is expressed in explicitly religious terms, like the concrete vision of Tom Kok, pastor in the Christian Reform Church: “I often think of Heaven, I think of a choir that is singing the praises of God continually. I think of a lovely garden, like the Garden of Eden must have been. … I’m looking forward to walking in the grass and playing baseball. My golf game probably won’t be any better, but I won’t care.” Most adopt more agnostic but still mystical views: “When you die, you die,” says trauma surgeon Dr. John Barrett. “Everyone knows that. But there is a spirituality to us. … You can call this spirituality your soul, or not your soul, but whatever it is, I do believe it continues after your body is dead.” Dr. Gary Slutkin reflects, “Death is our teacher. We have to be open to death.”

In tones always at least respectful, often reverential, this chorus of diverse voices affirms a message that will resonate for every reader: Death matters. And so does every instant leading up to it.

Nancy Mairs is the author of Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories and Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal (Beacon Press).

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002