The treacly legacy of Kübler-Ross.

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Sept. 23 2004 9:49 AM

Dead Like Her

How Elisabeth Kübler-Ross went around the bend.

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First off—for those speak-no-ill-about-the-dead types—let's get this straight: She's not dead. Yes, sure, the obituaries say Elisabeth Kübler-Ross died, on Aug. 24, but I have it on record that she is not dead.

Ron Rosenbaum Ron Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of numerous books and the editor of the recent anthology, Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism. His Harper's article on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is reprinted in his collection The Secret Parts of Fortune.

Back in the '80s, I was writing a critical examination (for Harper's) of Kübler-Ross' "Five Stages of Dying"the ones she made famous in her 1969 book On Death and Dying and some 15 follow-up tomes (including Death: The Final Stage of Growth). The Stages (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) became the foundation for an entire "Death 'n' Dying" Movement, as I dubbed it. And while there is no doubt Kübler-Ross made an important contribution to the treatment of dying patients (hospice care, etc.) in an age of increasingly mechanized medicine (and medical doctors), she also contributed to a kind of cultlike reverence for the allegedly superior truth-telling wisdom of the dying (and later the dead as well).

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It's a sentimentalizing of mortality that's become incorporated into popular culture and can be seen as the source of such death-obsessed dramas as Touched by an Angel and Dead Like Me—and series like Six Feet Under and the proliferations of CSIs, in which the dead body is fetishized as a catalyst for truth telling. (Perhaps the funniest embodiment and satire upon the trend is Curb Your Enthusiasm's famous "aunt" obituary episode.)

In any case, I'll never forget one conversation I hadwith Kübler-Ross' official spokeswoman. I was asking her whether Kübler-Ross' "heavenly car mechanic" vision (more details anon) was a Near Death Experience, and the spokeswoman corrected me: "Elisabeth doesn't like the term 'Near Death Experience' because she doesn't believe that death exists. No such thing."

The path to the moment in the early '80s when Kübler-Ross declared there is "no such thing as death" (and got into trouble fooling around with some "afterlife entities") can be traced to the landscape of postwar Europe. She was a Swiss resident (born in 1926) who volunteered to help care for Holocaust survivors and came to America after getting a medical degree. There in the early '60s she began specializing in the care of patients deemed to be dying and the neglect of their needs, chief among them, she believed, honesty on the part of doctors and a willingness to listen.

All of this was quite noble, but there came a point when caring became codifying as well. She began identifying herself as a "scientist" and took her accumulated anecdotal experience and declared that the dying process (and then the grieving process, too) had those famous five stages. Staging death had a remarkable appeal and gave an illusion of control over the uncontrollable. She became a saintly icon, the Queen of Death.

But then, quietly, in the late '70s, the Queen began to go around the bend, began declaring there was no death, there were only "transitions" from one permeable boundary to another. And often back. So, if one takes her belief seriously, not only have the reports of her death been exaggerated but reports of death itself have been exaggerated. Death for Kübler-Ross became just a kind of bonus "Sixth Stage," a kind of heavenly spa where one could freshen up before cruising around among the living again. That might be her, looking over your shoulder as you're reading this.

Whether or not Kübler-Ross is dead,her alleged "science" of Death 'n' Dying lives on in all its meretriciousness, rarely challenged any more. According to Kübler-Ross, there's a right way and a wrong way to die, a sober responsible Five Stage Way. Forget "Do not go gentle into that good night" by that alcoholic Welshman Dylan Thomas. You better go gentle, buster, you better die the New Age Way or you'll never appreciate how beautiful death can be. It's the only way to go, you might say.

The famous five stages of dying, of grieving, has gone beyond being a mere meme. It has become a deeply embedded unexamined ideology of death, something that doesn't merely describe the dying process that people go through but shapes—virtually prescribes—the process. It sets up the Five Stages as a kind of Moral Progress, and brands you as inauthentic if youdon't grimly trudge through each. Sort of like a Twelve Step Program for Death.

Until I looked into it, I admit that I was one of the ones content to accept on faith that Kübler-Ross' Five Stages of "Death 'n' Dying" was founded on something more solid than Kübler-Ross' anecdotes. She claimed to have investigated the process like a scientist; she claimed her stages were based on her observations as a doctor and on her encounters with the dying (this was before she claimed she was interacting with actual dead people). She'd become a revered mainstream American icon—and was even nameda Ladies' Home Journal "Woman of the Decade" at the end of the 70s, when she was jetting around the country holding "Death 'n' Dying" workshops to promote her Five Stages and her many books. (The Five Stages were the Mars and Venus of death.) By the '80s she'd helped make death the hot commodity it is now.

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