The Last Page

Not By Any Other Name

By June Rossbach Bingham Birge ’40

It’s not often that the Class Notes section causes me to cry out in astonishment; but the final item from the class of ’38 in the winter issue did: "We send our sympathies to the children of Katharine Meyer Graham, whose untimely death…" Untimely? How could it be? Kay Graham was 84 years old and had led a richly varied life.

She herself would not have considered death at that age untimely, and she would have been grateful for the way it came: suddenly, painlessly, and while her mental powers were still intact (she had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her admirable autobiography). As Kay once said, "The only thing I think any of us wants is to last as long as we’re any good, and then not."

Now that the famous trio of once-taboo subjects — sex, money, and religion — can freely be discussed, surely it’s time to stop pussy-footing around the subject of death. A first step might be to stop relying on its euphemisms, such as "old soldiers never die, they only fade away," while the rest of us are said to "pass away" or be "lost" (as in "he just lost his father"). Even after our "demise," we rarely get referred to as "dead" but instead become the "departed" or "deceased."

While death is an obvious necessity at the global level (imagine if everyone who ever lived was still lurking about), at the individual level it may offer us — or our survivors — a meaningful adventure. So why not include in Class Notes a brief description when reporting on it? Was the death longed-for or resisted? Was it slow or fast, with body giving way ahead of mind, or vice versa? Did a prolonged dying provide the family with a blessed reconciliation or a further cause of divisiveness? Did the bedridden patient resent the sense of helplessness or grow to enjoy at least a part of it? What, at the end, mattered most to the dying person; and what, if anything, can the rest of us learn from this particular life and death?

Following the September 11 catastrophe, I found that among my 10 grandchildren (all in their 20s and 30s), those who had previously faced the death of someone close to them seemed calmer than many of the others. The same was true of their parents. Likewise, all the old people I know went about their business on September 11, just as we had learned to do a half century ago — following not only Pearl Harbor but also when some Nazi soldiers came ashore from a submarine on the East Coast and some Japanese soldiers shelled an oil refinery on the West Coast. It would seem, then, that coping with death on an intimate basis, early in life, may offer us a valuable form of insulation for the next time.

Death, in my view, is a matter-of-fact part of life, and once we look it straight in the eye, we realize there are plenty of worse things — like prolonged, acute pain or severe, emotional deterioration. Surely the time has come to offer, in talking or writing about death, the kind of information that might vicariously insulate us both against the likelihood of bereavement over a beloved person’s death and the absolute certainty of our own.

June Bingham is a New York City author and playwright. Her recent musical, The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln, was given a workshop production Off-Broadway in October.