Broadcaster/writer Terkel (The Spectator, 1999, etc.) explores death and its impact on our sense of ourselves and on the meaning in our lives, in the latest in his pioneering series of oral histories.
The 60 interview subjects include professionals concerned with death and dying (doctors, social workers, clergy, police officers, firefighters), survivors of comas or near-death experiences, veterans of wars from WWII to Vietnam, singers and actors, civil-rights-movement veterans and AIDS activists. Many, like the astonishing Kid Pharaoh, will be familiar to readers of other Terkel volumes. Here, they share their reflections on the deaths of friends and loved ones, on the prospect of their own demise, and on their faith or lack if it—in the hereafter, in God, in human love, in the goodness of life, in the heartbreaking beauty of finitude. It’s remarkable how many of them have experienced some kind of communion with their beloved dead. There is food for reflection here for anyone both fascinated and frightened (and who isn’t?) by the thought of death. Readers will long remember Lloyd “Pete” Haywood, shot by a gangbanger and left for dead in the elevator of a housing project, whose faith allows him to refuse revenge; Dimitri Mihalis, a physicist who, having passed through depression, traumatic brain injury, and lithium psychosis, can still say, “My life has been touched by grace”; Maureen Young, the mother of a teenager killed, seemingly at random, by a teenaged gang member, who finds herself reaching out to her son’s killer; William Herdegen, a remarkably compassionate undertaker unafraid of the bodies of the victims of AIDS. Unfortunately, others interviewed blend together; for all their variety of race, profession, belief (or lack of it), and sexual orientation, perhaps too many of his subjects are in Terkel’s own progressive, activist mold.
Like many medicines, probably best taken in small doses.