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Death & Dying

by Nancy Berns
Temple University Press, 2011
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Jul 10th 2012


Closure is a book about closure, in the context of grief and healing.  The author, Nancy Berns, is an Associate Professor of Sociology, at Drake University in Des Moines.  Revealing the blunt candor that continues notably throughout the book, Berns, in the "Preface", reveals her wariness of businesses and politicians promising closure, as they peddle products and agendas.  Berns adds that the ways to grieve are many; and that closure is not required necessarily for healing.  Congruently, a thematic emphasis of the text is that "closure" is an exceedingly complex concept, bereft of definitive meaning, and associated with a multiplicity of interpretations.  To the reader's likely great edification, Berns, from the book's start to its end, works hard intellectually to separate knotty political, business, marketing, media, legal, cultural, sociological, ethical, religious, and psychological strands knottily entwining closure.  The text is characterized by thoughtful, insightful discourse garbed with a cloak of great sensitivity.  A critically questioning attitude is a further defining characteristic of the text.  Anecdotal and research matter, commingled adeptly by Berns in the enframing context of closure, both contribute materially and instructively to the book's substantive composition.

In a "Notes" structural section, joined structurally to the text's far end, citations are provided, on a chapter by chapter basis, for textually referenced materials; some of the Notes provide annotated comment.

Structurally, there is also a "Bibliography" (placed after the Notes), providing citations for germane research materials, alphabetized by author last name.

The selected bits and pieces of the closure pertinent,  research literature  culled by Berns are intellectually gathered and considered, in critically expert fashion.

Fragments in the form of quotes drawn from research materials, as well as anecdotal quotes, populate the text copiously.

Of great instructive value to readers are the multitude of questions raised very thoughtfully by Berns, concerning closure, with regard to which there are few, if any, definite answers.

In Chapter 7, for instance, Berns follows the sobering trail of a real life, double murder case.  Along the way, a plethora of contentious questions are raised.

Some of the Chapter 7 questions focus on execution, in the enframing context of closure.  For example, what is the relationship between execution (of a convicted murderer) and closure, for surviving family members?  Does executing a murderer bring closure to the family of the murdered person?  Should family members of a murdered person be allowed by law to watch the execution of the convicted murderer?  If family members of a murder victim personally watch the execution of the murderer, will this help bring closure to the bereaved family?  What are the possible emotional effects, of personally observing the execution of someone who murdered one of your loved ones?  How might the particular method of execution affect potentially the surviving family members (who observed personally the execution)?  What, if anything, are the "benefits" of capital punishment?  Should the death penalty be abolished legally?

Other questions raised by Berns, in Chapter 7, focus readers' attention on the area of closure and forgiveness (of a murderer, by surviving family).  Is the death penalty necessary, in order to provide closure for the family of a murdered person?  Or might forgiveness (of a convicted murderer) help bring closure to surviving family members?  What is the relationship between closure and forgiveness?  In murder cases, is closure possible for surviving family members, either by means of execution (of the convicted murderer), or else by forgiveness (of the murderer, by surviving family)?

The sharply cutting writing instrument of Berns cuts across a wide swath of substantive ground.

The crux of Chapter 1 is discerning the meaning of closure, including critically discerning comment on the historical rise of the concept of closure in popular culture.

Berns' intellectually game attempt to disentangle the tangled meaning of closure extends to Chapter 2.  Writing in the instructively thoughtful, critical, and questioning manner that persists throughout the book, Berns distinguishes several perceived types of closure:  closing a chapter; remembering; forgetting; getting even; knowing; and confessing or forgiving.

The reader, in Chapter 3, is introduced to the term the "Walking Wounded" (referring to persons who want closure, but believe that closure, for them, is not possible).  The reader is introduced further, in this chapter, to "Myth Slayers" (who believe that closure is a myth).

The "business" of death in the frame of closure particularly draws Berns' critically keen sighted gaze, in Chapter 4.  Topics falling within the ken, of Berns, encompass:  professional funeral homes; home funerals; caring for remains; aerial burial; burial at sea; do it yourself  scattering of ashes; and pet grief.

In Chapter 5, Berns casts a sharply critical eye on the assurance business.  As the term is used by Berns, the "assurance business" refers to businesses and persons engaged in the marketing and selling of peace of mind and answers (to questions, such as "How?" and "Why?" someone has died).  The raising of manifold issues, relating to the assurance business, adds materially to the chapter's instructive value.

The body of marriage, divorce, and relationship death is gingerly dissected, and examined expertly, in Chapter 6.  As usual, the frame of discussion is closure.  The marketing and selling of mock vengeance and symbolic death, as purported means to closure following the end of a relationship, strongly absorb Berns' interest.

Memorials, as ways to remember loved ones, fall prominently within the ambit of discussion, in Chapter 8.  The discussion of memorials is framed by closure, and encompasses informative comment regarding:  public memorials; roadside memorials; memorials for unborn children; and memorial designs.  Berns seeks to unwind the tangled mass of contentious legal and political strands enmeshing this area.

In concluding Chapter 9, Berns strives to frame grief beyond closure.  Following custom, the disclosure is thoughtfully opinionated.

Because the knot of closure is tied together by so many types of threads, including threads of politics, business, marketing, law, religion, sociology, psychology, culture, and ethics, the book may, alternatively, have been structured as an edited collection of papers, prepared by experts with special expertise in various fields connected to closure.

But surely, as written, the book is a boon to all grieving persons.  Professionally, the book should, also, be richly rewarding to bereavement scholars, sociologists, mental health professionals, politicians, and to  businesses  in some way tethered to grief and closure.


© 2012 Leo Uzych


Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.  Twitter @LeoUzych

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