Man's Mortality

Review of: Death and Bereavement, ed. by Austin H. Kutscher. Springfield, Illinois, Charles C. Thomas, 1969; and of Man's Concern with Death by Arnold Toynbee, A. Keith Mant, Ninian Smart, John Hinton, Simon Yudkin, Eric Rhode, Rosalind Heywood and H. H. Price. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1968

British Journal of Psychiatry, 116, 1970, p. 450

It seems that humanity is once again trying along somewhat newer lines to come to grips with the mortality of man. From being practically a taboo topic, it is now admitted as a reasonable cause of concern, and so not merely for neurotics and melan­cholics. These two books, one American, one British, illustrate a current stage in the loosening up process that still has a very lone way to co. Each of them, in fact, still shows many signs that the thought of personal death is for most people almost unrelievedly repug­nant, an area of blackness, now hardly any longer touched by the sickly light of hopes of personal salvation and immortality. We have been started off by the existentialists in our modern re‑orientation; but it seems that we are still far from achieving the robust and unworried acceptance of death shown by many peoples living in a primitive technology, for whom death in the circle of family and friends is an everyday occurrence. Indeed, we still have a long way to climb to reach the philosophical equanimity of the stoics of Greece and Rome. We are trying; but at present we are still scratching at a sore spot.

   The American group of essays is edited by Austin Kutscher, a Professor of Stomatology who is the President of the Foundation of Thanatology, an institution that publishes its own Archives. It con­tains 41 mostly very short essays, grouped under the titles Dying and Death, Philosophy‑Religion­ Survival, Bereavement, Practicalities of Recovering from Bereavement, Rebirth of the Spirit, and in Parts VII and VIII a little anthology of poetic quotes and potted résumés of recent books and articles. The orientation is extraverted; the aim is above all to be helpful. The 'problem of death' is thought to be 'insoluble', but it is recommended that one should face it. Perhaps sensibly, much more interest is given to the ways that the bereaved can be helped than to the hopeless situation of the man who looks forward to dying and doesn't like the prospect. Some of the help given is excellent, for instance five pages of serious music selections which had the effect of whetting my appetite. But these little essays are so short that they only skim the surface of the world through which the traveller should pass.

   The British work, which is dominated by the contributions of Arnold Toynbee, is a much more introverted one and of another calibre. Professor Toynbee is now an old man, and in the final chapter he offers a personal attitude, a solution one might even call it, which is moving in its humanity and wisdom. Before we get to this Epilogue, we have been taken over a great range of territory. Death and dying are handled from medical points of view by Keith Mant, John Hinton and Simon Yudkin. Oriental and Judaeo‑Christian philosophy are discussed in a scholarly and instructive way by Arnold Toynbee and Ninian Smart. For those who long for personal survival there are essays in Part III; 'Frontiers of Speculation', which are not an insult to one's intelligence. This is a work not lacking in profundity, and indeed making a serious effort to measure up to its tremendous theme.