Dead Like Her

How Elisabeth Kübler-Ross went around the bend.

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.

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).

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.

What prompted my examination was a small—but stunning—news clipping I came across in the early ‘80s describing the completely bizarre sexual scandal at Kübler-Ross’ retreat in Escondido, Calif., the mountaintop center she called Shanti Nilaya. The scandal concernedthe involvement of Kübler-Ross—and some of the grieving widows visiting her retreat—with a self-proclaimed spirit medium who conned them all into believing he had the ability to channel “afterlife entities.” Not only channel them but facilitate their having sex with the grieving widows.

It was, if you ask me, not an aberration but a culmination of Kübler-Ross’ love affair with death; love affairs with the dead. But by then her growing belief that “death does not exist” had made her fall prey to a host of spirit mediums and charlatans who claimed they could make contact with the beautiful beings on the Other side.

She herselffirst encountered the “afterlife entities” during an “out of body” experience after one of her “workshops.” She wrote that “I saw myself lifted out of my physical body. … [I]t was as if a whole lot of loving beings were taking all the tired parts out of me, similar to car mechanics in a car repair shop. … I had an incredible sense that once all the parts were replaced I would be a young and fresh and energetic as I had been prior to the rather exhausting, draining workshop.”

After several trips to the auto repair shop and a lot of heart to hearts with the heavenly mechanics, she began to speak about death as the fountain of youth: “People after death become complete again. The blind can see, the deaf can hear, cripples are no longer crippled after all their vital signs have ceased to exist.” The emphasis had shifted from a spiritual renewal while still alive, albeit dying, to the physical renewal awaiting one after death. It made death seem all too sweetly attractive (especially at a time when there were deep-rooted problems in the medical establishment’s handling of dying patients). Some might say it made suicide seductive to the physically and mentally troubled. Death, in her new view, was a kind of Lourdes-cum-plastic-surgery spa.

But few challenged the escalating nonsense because—after all—she had “discovered” the five stages of death and grieving. She got to people when they were most wounded, scared, and vulnerable, and gave them a secular religion of death.

Enter the spirit medium of Escondido—a guy she had invited to her workshops, who somehow facilitated intercourse between the grieving widows and the“afterlife entities.” The scandal erupted when several of the widows came down with similar vaginal infections, and one turned on the light during a session with an “afterlife entity” and discovered the opportunistic spirit medium himself, naked except for a turban. (He offered the completely plausible explanation that the afterlife entities had “cloned” him—and the turban, too, I guess—to help enable the afterlife entities to engage in the pleasures of the flesh.)

I’m not making this up. It’s just sort of conveniently been forgotten that the founder of the so called “scientific” “five stages” encouraged and at first defended these practices. “There are those who might say this has damaged my credibility,” Kübler-Ross said, when she finally conceded that the spirit medium’s behavior “did not meet the standards” of her retreat. But it’s not important “whether people believe what I say … I’m a doctor and a scientist, who simply reports what she sees, hears, and experiences.”

Right. Science. It’s probably too late to disengage our culture from the unexamined assumptions in the Kübler-Ross death and dying ideology/movement, but we can at least examine them now from a distance. When I first wrote about it I saw it as a kind of confidence trick: In the guise of telling people that they were fearlessly investigating the realm of death, staring death in the face, etc., etc., it was offering people a way of distancing themselves from dread. Turning something scary like death into a “process” with nothing unpredictable to fear. Disguising it with a familiarizing scaffolding of “stages,” swathing it in a gauzy romanticism of self-examination, self-expression. Death: the highest point of life, the “final stage of growth.”

I also suggested thatits popular success was due in large part to the behavior control function of the five stages and its appeal to hospital and hospice caregivers, who all took D ‘n’ D workshops. It made the five stages into a kind of moral progress: Potentially disruptive and annoying anger would give way to the more quiet stages of “depression” and “acceptance.” Easier on the night nurses.

But now, looking back I think it can be seen as part of the Me-Decade ideology that denial is always bad. We must constantly be staring death in the face and rubbing everybody’s nose in it, or we’re really not living life. (Although if we spend all our time staring death in the face we have little time left to live life.)

Part of this ideology was rooted in the overheated overrated polemic by the Freudian Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, in which he blamed all of civilization’s problems on its unwillingness to stare death in the face. (One could argue that all civilization’s achievements were accomplished by those who didn’t have time to dwell on the obvious fact that they were going to die.)

But is denial always a bad thing? Must death be regimented so it loses its mystery? These questions have some contemporary resonances: Are we in denial if we don’t watch every terrorist beheading video or gaze repeatedly at the descent of those who jumped from the World Trade Center towers? Come to think of it, aren’t Kübler-Ross’ five stages arbitrary in their order? Wouldn’t it be more fun to go out angry or better, bargaining, than depressed and accepting? Or maybe with a different “stage” of our own devising. Laughter in the dark?

I’m sure Kübler-Ross was well intentioned and serious-minded before she commodified and quantified her caring into a D ‘n’ D industry. And I understand why people will turn to her books in time of grief when consolation of any sort is the first priority. Millions of the dead and dying have reason to be grateful to her for raising their standard of care. I just feel we who are about to die (well, sooner or later) deserve better than this treacly simulacrum of pseudo-science to guide us. Her Five Stages of dying is the Emperor’s New Shroud.