Accounting for the Afterlife's New Appeal

Steve Moeller spends all day with dead people — and that's been making him popular with the living, he says.

Moeller, the director of Floral Haven Funeral Home in Broken Arrow, Okla., has had a quarter-century career working near death, but lately, he says he's seen a change in public attitudes toward the great unknown.

"It used to be when I was going to a party and I told people I was a funeral director, they cleared the room. Now they flock around and ask questions," he told ABCNEWS.

Death and the afterlife are apparently putting the pop in pop culture nowadays. The HBO series Six Feet Under, about a Los Angeles family's funeral home business, kicked off the phenomenon a couple of seasons ago. But now there's a whole slew of entertainment that's transformed death from an unmentionable into a curiosity.

Change the channel from HBO, and you might find Dead Like Me, Showtime's dark comedy about a young woman's afterlife experience as a grim reaper. Fox has Tru Calling, a drama about a college grad who has a gift for communicating with dead people.

If you'd rather read, it would be hard to avoid Alice Seybold's The Lovely Bones, a story told from the perspective of a young murder victim in heaven, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list since it was published in June 2002.

And this season, another book has appeared at the top of that list — also about the afterlife. The Five People You Meet in Heaven is about the lessons a maintenance man learns upon his arrival in heaven, from the figures at pivotal points in his life. Author Mitch Albom's previous book was Tuesdays With Morrie, a 1997 best seller recording conversations he had with his college professor as the older man lay dying from a terminal disease.

"I think what's going on now with many people around the world is that they're asking what happened [when someone dies] — what really happened and what is happening next," said Janis Amatuzio, a coroner for a number of Midwestern cities and author of Forever Ours, a recently-published collection of stories about the experiences of families during the deaths of their loved ones.

The Effects of Time

The most immediate explanation for these morbid interests are the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which claimed the lives of 3,000 people and raised the prospect of an unexpected death for the rest of the nation.

"I think that opened the door for everyone to talk about grief. You saw people doing it every day for weeks," said Moeller. "You saw that it was OK to grieve, OK to cry."

Sept. 11 also kicked off a search for meaning, Amatuzio said. In addition to the many books and television shows about the supernatural, shows about forensic science have also been popular.

She sees a link between the interest in death and an interest in solving criminal mysteries. Both phenomena respond to a need for answers, she said. "Shows like CSI offer some relief to people at the end of the day."

The overwhelming popularity of The Lovely Bones followed a season of hysteria over missing children, said critic Daniel Mendelsohn in the January 2003 edition of The New York Review of Books.

But the hysteria, he suggests, was not so much a cause of the book's popularity as both occurrences were delayed reactions to the losses of Sept. 11.

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