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On Our Way

The Final Passage through Life and Death

Robert Kastenbaum

Publication Year: 2004

How do our ideas about dying influence the way we live? Life has often been envisioned as a journey, the river of time carrying us inexorably toward the unknown country—and in our day we increasingly turn to myth and magic, ritual and virtual reality, cloning and cryostasis in the hope of eluding the reality of the inevitable end. In this book a preeminent and eminently wise writer on death and dying proposes a new way of understanding our last transition. A fresh exploration of the final passage through life and perhaps through death, his work deftly interweaves historical and contemporary experiences and reflections to demonstrate that we are always on our way.

Drawing on a remarkable range of observations—from psychology, anthropology, religion, biology, and personal experience—Robert Kastenbaum re-envisions life's forward-looking progress, from early-childhood bedtime rituals to the many small rehearsals we stage for our final separation. Along the way he illuminates such moments and ideas as becoming a "corpsed person," going down to earth or up in flames, respecting or abusing (and eating) the dead, coping with "too many dead," conceiving and achieving a "good death," undertaking the journey of the dead, and learning to live through the scrimmage of daily life fully knowing that Eternity does not really come in a designer flask. Profound, insightful, often moving, this look at death as many cultures await it or approach it enriches our understanding of life as a never-ending passage.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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1. Here (?) We Are

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pp. 1-24

A book concerned with how we move through life and death might usefully begin with who and where we are at this moment in the co-biography of ourselves and the universe. Scientists tell us that the universe started with a Big Bang, or that maybe it didn’t. Life evolved to fulfill a cosmic plan, or maybe it popped up as a fleeting aberration. ...

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2. Practicing Death: Some Rituals of Everyday Life

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pp. 25-42

The unknown often arouses an uneasy blend of excitement, hope, and dread. “Be gentle with me. It’s my first time” can apply to situations other than a farewell to virginity. What will it be like to move away from the old neighborhood? To leave the familiar companions and routines of home? To leave school for the workplace? ...

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3. Good Death, Bad Death (I): In Other Times and Places

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pp. 43-92

Does it make any sense to think of a person as having either a “good” or a “bad” death? History suggests that it does. People in many times and places have developed strong preferences about ways to live and die that are deeply rooted in religious beliefs and cultural values. “The good (or bad) death” actually refers to the end phase of life. ...

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4. Good Death, Bad Death (II): Here and Now

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pp. 93-137

More people are alive today than at any time in history. How will all these lives end? In the past, acute infections and contagious diseases were the leading causes of death. Infants and children were at especially high risk, as were women during and after childbirth. Famine, accidents, and violence also claimed many lives. ...

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5. Corpsed Persons

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pp. 138-175

“Funerals are for the living, not the dead.” This glib statement is often heard and is often incomplete and dismissive. In many instances, funerals have been for the dead as well as the living. Many peoples have developed core religious beliefs and practices around the fate and well-being of the dead. What does it mean to be a corpse? ...

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6. Abusing and Eating the Dead

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pp. 176-217

There are good reasons to behave well toward the dead. Usually we do so. Furthermore, there are many examples of people who have devoted themselves to correcting a perceived injustice to their own dead. Here, though, we explore the opposite response. Abuse of the dead has been widespread throughout the centuries, ...

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7. Too Many Dead: The Plague and Other Mass Deaths

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pp. 218-261

Traditional societies often give their all when one of their members has died. The kin and, at times, the entire community devote themselves to seeing that the right things are done in the right way. The rituals can be exacting and time-consuming. Scarce resources, such as the most esteemed foods, may be expended. ...

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8. Down to Earth and Up in Flames

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pp. 262-310

A person has died. Now what? In most societies on most occasions, there will be both a symbolic and a practical response. The symbolic response might be as elaborate as a Hmung ritual or as tellingly direct as an Amish funeral.1 A marimba band might be included in the funeral procession, and women closely related to the deceased might be expected to chant and lament ...

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9. Journey of the Dead

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pp. 311-354

There is the leaving. There is the going toward. There is the arrival. We could be talking about any journey. The journey might be marked by rituals, especially at the points of origin and arrival. These rituals are interesting to anthropologists, who use “rites of passage” as a heuristic concept. ...

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10. Living Through

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pp. 355-414

Should we live for that elusive moment of exhilaration? Or take each moment, no matter how ordinary, as it comes and goes? Perhaps instead we should discipline ourselves to meet expectations and obligations over the long run. Do our lives add up to something, with the best yet to come? ...


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pp. 415-428

Sources Cited

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pp. 429-440


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pp. 441-452

E-ISBN-13: 9780520922938
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520218802

Page Count: 460
Publication Year: 2004