Millennia ago a pain-strapped farmer in the Middle East put a monumental question: “If a man die, shall he live again?” The last half of that question triggers controversy among men, not the first half; for unquestionably a man will die. The silence of mankind’s fallen millions proves it. Marshalling his ingenuity to outmaneuver death, dreaming of some scientific breakthrough that will make him immortal, man keeps on dying.

Occasionally a magazine article deals with how death is managed in America. But almost inevitably the writer discusses only what the survivors do about the dead; he says nothing about how the dying manage. Dying is a very personal matter. When the President of the United States was assassinated a few years ago, the news of his death was heard in all the corners of the earth. Yet thousands knew nothing of his passing, for these thousands were busy with their own dying.

“Is not death the great adventure still?” asked James Elroy Flecker. The great adventure, indeed, and a very serious one. Men may at times speak flippantly of death, but they do not do so in its presence. Everywhere on earth solemnity still marks the appearance of man’s final foe. And the burial of a fellow man fires in us the realization of the limited boundaries of our earthly existence.

Yet, despite the universality and inevitability of death, it is rarely a conversation piece. We shrink from meditation on what Herman Hagedorn called “the quiet shutting, one by one, of doors.” Death is not a desirable topic for politicians, and we’d prefer to have our preachers avoid dwelling on it in sermons. Even doctors, who live with death and whose business is to stay men’s dying, are not chatty on the subject. Still we never can efface death from our ...

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