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.

"[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.

And it will play into the imaginations of future generations even more, she says. While Henry didn't know any of her grandparents before they died, her son, who is 16, will see all of his grandparents die, she said.

"It used to be people died much younger and much quicker," she said. "With technology we're living longer and dying slower."

Life's Defining Contrast

However, Henry doesn't see anything unusual with this latest fascination with death and the afterlife.

Every generation has dealt with death, she said. A baby boomer herself, she brought up previous trends toward the macabre: the music of The Doors, and movies such as Harold and Maude, a 1971 comedy about a death-obssessed 20-year-old who befriends a senior with a zest for life, and The Loved One, a 1965 comedy about a man from Hollywood who goes to England to inter his uncle.

But Henry also notes that even if boomers are interested in death, many of them are doing all they can to pretend it will never come. With face-lifts and liposuction, she says, "we're doing everything to say we're not [aging]."

Regardless of generation, Americans still don't die well, she said. "It's always a crisis." There's an aphorism, she said: "In Asia, death is a requirement. In Europe, death is inevitable. In the U.S., we think it's optional."

Diana Gill, a book editor for publisher HarperCollins, said there "doesn't seem to be some sort of gestalt in changing people's attitudes towards death, at least in book publishing."

Instead, she said the fascination with death that may extend from the interest in angels a few years back. "I think it's just sort of the next extension of that."

But one thing about death is inarguable. As Gill said, "it's something people have always been fascinated and repulsed by."