Will the Circle be Unbroken? Reflections on Death and Dignity
By Studs Terkel
In newspaper profiles connected with his new book, the legendary 89-year-old oral historian Studs Terkel has marvelled at how easy it was. “They say nobody wants to talk about death. Let me tell ya: everybody wants to talk about it!” What happens when we die? How do we support ourselves in grief? Do we want to be “hooked up” at the end, or not? And the big question, from the traditional hymn: will the circle be unbroken, by and by?
Well, the sixty-some interviews in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? certainly attest to a basic impulse to “reflect on death like crazy”. This stuff just bursts out of people — so much so, in fact, that although Terkel sorts their testimonies strictly under headings, the voices somehow all strive to be heard at once — believers and non-believers; old and young; black and white; angry and consoled — until what you hear is a rich (if muddling) human cacophony of faith, uncertainty, grief and redemptive compassion.
He knows a lot of people, Studs Terkel. Most of them, to judge by this book, are progressive liberal Chicagoans with spotless social consciences who are liable to make the reader feel quite worthless by comparison, frankly. “Who’s next on the list?” I started to wonder, facetiously. “Al Truism? Ben Evolence? Hugh Manity?” Unforgivable, of course, but I was so tired of everyone being a saintly outreach worker or an Aids nurse, or a retired public school teacher. Of course the selection of subjects just reflects the author’s famous encouraging view of bottom-up human kindness, but you can’t help thinking: aren’t people in the wider world today more selfish than this? Don’t they die too?
I mean, Terkel even manages to find an undertaker who isn’t in it for the money. An undertaker? Give us a break, Studs. But when no one else was taking Aids cases in the mid 1980s, this guy said, “No problem”. “I felt that somebody had to do it. When they’d come in, you could just see the relief on their faces.” This worthy chap, who embalmed many members of his own family, also incidentally refuses to be “hooked up” when the end comes, for a compelling reason: “I’ve seen so many come in where the body is rotting already, but they keep ’em going with the machines… They’re rotting before the heart stops, put it that way.”
Some of the best stories concern the borderline between life and death — a paramedic deciding whether to resuscitate; a merchant marine in a lifeboat taking three hours to decide whether to dump a body overboard. Heart-breakingly, an elderly Mexican mother remembers making the life-and-death decision for her handicapped child Bobby — 33 years old when he died. “They said, ‘He has a right to life’. I said ‘I understand — but he also has a right to go…For myself, as his mother, I have seen him suffer a lot and I don’t want them to open his head and not even know for what.’ …And we let him go.”
Less satisfactory are all the flaky ideas about the afterlife. Hearing whether 60-odd people you’ve never met believe in heaven is a vast ho-hum, despite the degrees of passion. “I really believe that what I am is not this body. I know how quick this body turns to garbage.” “I think people are born with different amounts of cosmic dust.” “I regret the absolute belief that I had, because it’s making me nuts. I don’t know what to think anymore!” “Nobody comes back. Where are they? Where are those guys like Lincoln and them guys. What happened to them? They’re in a box? Where?”
But the cumulative effect is, as Terkel tells us, the revelation of the astonishing prevalent power of death over people alive. In a simple section towards the end of the book, titled “The End and the Beginning”, he gives two contrasting stories with such obvious edifying effect that they might be a sermon. In the first, an old woman remembers the horror of seeing her 14-year-old son’s remains after he’d been hacked to death in a notorious racist attack. Though it happened in 1955, the memory of her son’s state is still so raw and distressing, the import is: this death ended her life. The second story — representing “the beginning” — is of a man whose grandmother’s death inspired him to become a neurosurgeon.
Will the Circle be Unbroken? announces itself as being about “death and dignity”. But it is also, richly, about love, pity and acceptance. I was moved again and again by stories of simple kindness, and if readers aren’t queuing to volunteer at the hospice after this, there’s honestly no feeling left in the world. “And then I told her. I said ‘Norma, your cats are OK. Your rent is paid. Wayne is fine. Everything is taken care of…If you still want me to do what I promised you, squeeze my finger.’ And she squeezed my finger. The next morning she died from a heart attack. And that was the story of Norma.”