Accounting for the Afterlife's New Appeal

"[Its] huge popularity has very little, in fact, to do with the timeliness of its publication just months after a series of abductions and murders of girls had transfixed a nation already traumatized by the events of September 11," he wrote. "It is, rather, the latter catastrophe that surely accounts for the novel's gigantic appeal."

However, the roots of this public interest in death may also run deeper than Sept. 11. Six Feet Under debuted in the summer of 2001.

Moeller traces it to events like the deaths of Princess Diana in 1997 and John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999, which prompted spectacles of mourning and moved grief from the private to the public spheres.

By contrast, look at the 1963 funeral of President Kennedy, and the iconic image of his new widow striving not to express her grief, Moeller said. "Everyone was so impressed with how Jackie Kennedy held it together."

Opening Your Mind

Public attitudes toward death have also been swayed by more subtle undercurrents in recent decades. America's ever-increasing diversity has exposed its citizens to many other ways of thinking about death.

"People have a freedom now to explore their belief and get past the rigid belief systems with which they were raised. They have changed to ask the deeper questions about the afterlife that many religions don't permit," said Bruce Van Horn, a New York yoga instructor.

For example, in Eastern cultures, death is "almost something looked forward to," said Stella Henry, a gerontologist and co-founder of Vista del Sol Care Center in Culver City, Calif., a private nursing home. In traditions like Buddhism, she said, what you do in this life means you may have a better next life.

Americans also have a longstanding tendency to experiment with spirituality. "It's traceable even to the colonial roots," said Frederick Schmidt, a theologian at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

Today, Americans have increasingly been making a distinction between spirituality and religion, he said. "They think of religion in institutional terms, spirituality in terms of what's meaningful and personal."

The Boomer Influence

Like any number of trends over the past half-century, this fascination with death, as well as the ease with which Americans switch religions, can be attributed to the baby boomers. "Boomers struggle deeply with issue and notions of authority," Schmidt said.

Many of the defining moments for the boomers, such as the 1967 Summer of Love, involved strong elements of non-Western religions. And now boomers — defined as those born between 1946 and 1964 — are getting older, with the oldest turning 57 this year and beginning to contemplate the autumn of their lives.

"In the past, no one wanted to talk about death, whereas now people are getting older and they're realizing life is finite, they're more open to talking about death," said Van Horn.

Baby boomers also set the precedent of "personaliz[ing] everything from vacations to automobiles to their houses," said George W. Clarke, executive director of Selected Independent Funeral Homes, a professional association — and much of that attitudes also extends toward death.

Medical improvements mean that boomers can expect to live longer than previous generations and have the luxury of looking at death on a slowly nearing horizon. That contributes to their fascination with death, said gerontologist Henry.

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