Discovering "The Craft of Dying:" The 40th Anniversary of the Seminal Classic on Death & Dying

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Lyn Lofland's seminal classic on death, dying, and end-of-life issues, The Craft of Dying: The Modern Face of Death Lofland identifies, critiques, and theorizes 1970's death movements, including the Death Acceptance Movement, the Death with Dignity Movement, and the Natural Death movement. All these groups attempted to transform death into a “positive experience,” anticipating much of today's death and dying activism. She wrote just before the AIDS epidemic transformed the landscape of death and dying in the West; many of the trends she identified became the building blocks of AIDS activism in the 1980's and 1990's. The Craft of Dying will help readers understand contemporary death social movements' historical relationships to questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality and is a book that everyone interested in end-of-life politics should read.

In her winning endorsement, Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death and author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, writes, "Lofland makes a strong case that, like feminism, death acceptance movements should be seen as waves, building and course-correcting on previous attempts at reform. The Craft of Dying is necessary context for any death historian." 

In his wonderful introduction below, John Troyer, Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, writes that the book is a must for "every person working on contemporary death and dying issues." 

 

 

 

Lyn Lofland’s The Craft of Dying (1978) is one of the most important books on post-WWII death and dying practices that almost no one has read. To see Lofland’s largely overlooked, but still relevant, text republished by the MIT Press is both thrilling and deeply gratifying. It is the one book that in my capacity as Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath I think every person working on contemporary death and dying issues must read. Indeed, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in understanding how events forty-years ago shaped what Lofland would call today’s “thanatological chic” read The Craft of Dying and note the current uncanny resemblances to the 1970's. 

The Craft of Dying is, for me, that death, dying, and end-of-life issues book.

A common response to my adamant recommendation is— why? Why and how is this specific book any different or better than its contemporaries, e.g., On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (to name two big death canon contenders)? My rapid answer is that Lofland’s book both documents what happened in the 1970's (the formation of new hospice spaces, activist groups encouraging people to  accept death, the introduction of college courses on dying, and so on) alongside an invaluable critique of those activities. In fact, it is Lofland’s critique and classification of death-focused groups as social movements creatively constructing a new end-of-life ideology that makes The Craft of Dying fundamentally important. Lofland calls these end-of-life groups (similar in structure, she will note, to diffuse 1970's women’s movement and environmental movement groups) the happy death movement and uses the term to connote enthusiastic warriors taking on a challenge. Her critique is both generous and insightful at all times. But Lofland was not content with merely documenting what these death and dying groups did; she wanted to better understand what motivated their new end-of-life politics and thinking. It is her push to clearly articulate what is happening in her own moment that makes The Craft of Dying so valuable today; almost every argument and observation she first presented forty years ago remain both pertinent and urgently needed now.

This book is truly a message in a bottle, and one sent from a decade when death and dying social movements coalesced around end-of-life ideologies that the Western world still struggles with today. That Lyn Lofland accomplished this feat in so few pages is an achievement in and of itself.

Discovering The Craft of Dying

For all my praise of Lofland’s work, I am embarrassed to say that I first learned of, and then read, The Craft of Dying in summer 2014. My mid-career discovery of Lofland occurred only after my esteemed colleague (and walking Death Studies encyclopedia) Tony Walter asked if I knew her book and the happy death movement argument. I said that no, I didn’t. Tony asked about Lofland, because he understood how The Craft of Dying directly related to my (then new) research project on American death and dying discourse during the 1970's.

In a nutshell, this research project examines how the 1970's functioned as a crucial but largely forgotten decade for understanding what motivates today’s death and dying groups, as well as foreshadowing many current end-of-life debates. It is during the 1970s that new death and dying tools and technologies took root, altering the definition of death: things taken for granted today, such as living wills and life-support technologies. Much of the decade’s activity is at a very local level and includes individuals forming groups that emphasize Death Acceptance, the Right-to-Die, and dying a Natural Death—all thoroughly documented in The Craft of Dying.

But the 1970's was also a decade when end-of-life issues extended all the way to the White House and bookended politically tumultuous times. In 1971 President Richard Nixon announced his War on Cancer, and in 1979 President Jimmy Carter formed the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical Behavioral Research, which later published its landmark 1981 report Defining Death: A Report on the Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death during the Reagan administration. Carter’s group would eventually become known as the President’s Council on Bioethics and advise all future Presidents on a wide array of issues, including, but not limited to, death and dying Lofland’s research remains a key historical and conceptual anchor for anyone interested in that decade, since The Craft of Dying analyzed and critiqued what was happening in the 1970's, during the 1970's. What any reader comes away with from this book, I think, is how death and dying were national conversations related to ongoing events—e.g., the Karen Ann Quinlan right-to-die case in New Jersey (which also went global)—and connected to personal freedoms—e.g., the country’s first Natural Death Act, passed in California in 1976, that gave individuals the right to legally refuse medical treatments even if the refusal meant dying.

After Tony Walter’s helpful nudge, I discovered that The Craft of Dying was long out of print (the republishing idea first occurred in this very moment), but I persisted in locating a copy and subsequently devoured the book in one August 2014 sitting. I say in all seriousness that reading this book fundamentally changed how I approached all research on death, dying, the dead body, end-of-life concerns, the politics of death, the historical formation of hospice spaces, current Happy Death groups pushing for what Lofland has called “death talk,” and neoliberal economic “choice” about funerals. I could go on and on. And like any convert with a newly discovered evangelical zeal I wanted nothing more than to excitedly read long sections of The Craft of Dying to audiences.

Coincidentally enough, captive audiences were available to me in August 2014, since I was the Scholar in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York (now sadly closed). I am not kidding when I say that almost all my public lectures during the residency involved me simply reading sections from The Craft of Dying, especially the introduction:

It seems likely that eventually humans will construct for themselves a new, or at least altered, death culture and organization—a new “craft of dying”—better able to contain the new experience. I believe, as do other sociological observers … that in the ferment of activity relative to death and dying during the last two decades in the United States we have witnessed and are witnessing just such a reconstruction. Undoubtedly within this ferment, especially that emanating from the mass media, there are elements of fad and fashion—a thanatological “chic” as it were, having approximately the same level of import as organic gardening and home canning among the rich. And certainly one can never underestimate the capacity of American public discourse to transform “life and death matters” into passing enthusiasms. But there is, I believe, more to this activity than simply one more example of impermanent trendiness in modern life. Americans, especially affluent middle-class Americans, have been in the process of creating new or at least altered ways of thinking, believing, feeling, and acting about death and dying because they have been confronting a new “face of death.” 

And if you are reading this now and thinking to yourself that these words eerily describe death and dying in your own historical moment (“fad and fashion” always gives me pause), then you begin to see why a book published in 1978 continues challenging everyone to examine how any decade’s happy death movements can possibly be unique, or new, or revolutionary. Lofland wants readers to understand the history of the present, so that the next generation’s death and dying activists might also comprehend the historical relationships to their own current struggle.

Lyn H. Lofland is Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Davis.

John Troyer is the Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath