2014-01-02 / News

Two Jamestowners contribute death essays

Death. It’s the only certainty in life, yet most avoid talking about the subject. It’s simply too frightening to ponder.

Now a new collection of essays by University of Rhode Island political science graduates brings death into the open and shows how mortality can unify people in today’s troubled times.

“Confronting Death: College Students on the Community of Mortals,’’ is a collection of 18 essays that explore how death can transform people and societies. Essayists include Jamestown residents Morgan Zubof and Pete Zubof. Both islanders earned their master’s degrees from URI in 2013. Pete Zubof is an officer and pilot in the U.S. Navy.

The co-editor is Alfred G. Killilea, professor emeritus of political science at the university. He says the book is the result of essays he asked his students to submit for “The Politics of Being Mortal,’’ a seminar he’s been teaching for years about society’s shifting views on death. As American politics withers from deep ideological divisions, Killilea says our mortality is a strong force for finding common ground.

“At a time when our world seems to lack the moral and political will to confront enormous challenges to our planet and our very survival, confronting our common mortality may provide us with a powerful fulcrum for change,’’ Killilea says. “Enmities and enemies look a lot different when we are cognizant of the fact that we all will die.’’

Some essays are strictly political, such as the ones about jihadist martyrs, child soldiers and the Nazis, who monstrously decided who was a human being, and who was not. Two essays examine suicide, including a well-trodden suicide forest on Mount Fuji in Japan, where nature guards patrol the woods searching for people considering suicide. Another essay considers capital punishment from the perspective of a prison chaplain.

Other essays explore death themes in the work of writers Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Hitchens, who wrote searing articles about facing mortality as he battled esophageal cancer. He died of the illness in 2011. Another essay looks at the evolution of the grim reaper from its origins in the black plague of the 14th century, to its portrayal in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Finally, one essay considers the attitude of street gangs toward death, and another piece argues that climbing Mount Everest is a life-affirming experience, not a death wish.

Kirkus, a literary magazine, praised the essays, calling them lively and fascinating, despite the grim subject.

Dylan Lynch, the book’s other co-editor, also gets a nod in his essay about Vonnegut for pointing out that most people spend their days denying death, but are still crippled by the constant fear of it. The book’s message is that everything comes and goes, and that acceptance of death is key to living a rewarding life.

A positive review also appeared in the literary magazine Clarion.

“That 18 college students can write with such depth about community and mortality is impressive,’’ the reviewer says. “This will definitely be a conversation starter.’’

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