The Final Crossing

Death and Dying in Literature

by John J. Han (Volume editor) Clark C. Triplett (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 254 Pages


Since ancient times, writers and poets have grappled with death, dying, grief, and mourning in their works. The Final Crossing: Death and Dying in Literature compiles fifteen in-depth, scholarly, and original essays on death and dying in literature from around the globe and from different time periods. Written from a variety of critical perspectives, the essays target both scholars and serious students. Death and dying is an important area of study for a variety of disciplines, including psychology, psychiatry, sociology, gerontology, medical ethics, healthcare science, health law, and literary studies. The Final Crossing is a landmark compendium of academic essays on death and dying in literary texts, such as the Iliad, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, Hamlet, The Secret Garden, and The Grapes of Wrath. This collection of essays not only brings an international flavor, but also a unique angularity to the discourse on thanatology. The novelty of perspectives reflects the diverse cultural and intellectual backgrounds of the contributors. This diversity opens up a fresh conversation on a number of age-old questions related to «the final crossing.» In this volume, readers will find an intriguing array of topics for further reflection and research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Death as a Reflection of Cultural Meaning and Symbolism
  • Chapter One: Gravesites in the Stories of Herman Charles Bosman: An Exploration of History, Memory, Ritual, Identity, and Landscape
  • Chapter Two: “Mouthed Graves Will Give Thee Memory”: Burial Sites and Poetic Immortality in Renaissance Verse
  • Chapter Three: Christian and Muslim Concepts of Death and the Afterlife in Postmodern Agnostic Poetry
  • Part Two: Death as a Literary Device
  • Chapter Four: The End of Language? Representations and Effects of Death and Dying in the Fiction of Julia Kristeva and Susan Sontag
  • Chapter Five: Death as an Instrument for Social Criticism in Young Italian Literature
  • Chapter Six: The Secret Garden at the Back of the North Wind: The Life and Death Journey in Frances Hodgson Burnett and George MacDonald
  • Part Three: Those Left Behind
  • Chapter Seven: How Men Grieve: A Contemporary Allegory of the Grieving Process in Sir Orfeo
  • Chapter Eight: Haunting and Melancholia: A Reading of the Revenant in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”
  • Chapter Nine: Those Left Behind: The Non-Endings of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and Aharon Appelfeld’s The Immortal Bartfuss
  • Part Four: Death and Postmodernism
  • Chapter Ten: In The Driver’s Seat: Death and Isolation in Muriel Spark’s Postmodern Gothic
  • Chapter Eleven: Death and Dying as Literary Devices in Brite’s Exquisite Corpse and Palahniuk’s Damned
  • Chapter Twelve: “Stories Can Save Us”: Rewriting Death in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
  • Part Five: Death as an Expression of Personal Experience
  • Chapter Thirteen: Tears and the Art of Grief
  • Chapter Fourteen: Quick and Long-Lasting: Death and Dying in John Steinbeck’s Fiction
  • Chapter Fifteen: Death-Defying Women: Art and Transcendence in Cather
  • About the Editors
  • About the Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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We wish to thank the scholars who contributed their original essays for this volume. Without their participation, collaboration, and gracious patience, this book would not exist. Thanks are also due to Glory Castello, Abigail Crain, Rachel Hayes, Rebecca Klussman, and Jessica Kostelic for proofreading and copyediting service, and to Curtis McClain for assisting us with the page-setting of the whole file. We express sincere gratitude to Dr. Ginny Lewis, our series editor, whose meticulous reading of the final draft enhanced the quality of this book. It was also a delight to work with the acquisitions editor at Peter Lang, Michelle Salyga, who expertly guided us through the final process of publishing this volume. Finally, we are grateful to Missouri Baptist University for its support of this project.

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Death and dying is an important area of study in a variety of disciplines, including psychology, psychiatry, sociology, gerontology, medical ethics, healthcare science, health law, and literary studies. One of the modern pioneers in thanatology was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926–2004), a Swiss-American psychiatrist whose book On Death and Dying (1969) famously presented the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Her model is now challenged, most notably in Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s The Truth about Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss (2011), yet Kübler-Ross’s book was a seminal work that revolutionized the way we view the process of dying and bereavement.

The year 1970 saw the publication of two important journals on death and dying, Death Studies and OMEGA: Journal of Death and Dying, both of which are still published. In the same year, Hannelore Wass (1926–2013), a German-American scholar, began to teach death and dying at the University of Florida. These days, almost all colleges, universities, and seminaries offer the course. The Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), which evolved from the Forum for Death Education and Counseling, also meets on an annual basis.

However, the issue of death and dying is as old as human history. Throughout the history of world literature, writers and poets have grappled with the issue of human death and dying. Texts from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia evidence early humans’ preoccupation with death. The Pyramid Texts (2464–2355 B.C.) envision the afterlife of dead kings who fly into heaven and eat the gods. Death is also a central theme of the Mesopotamian text The Epic of Gilgamesh (2700 B.C.– c. 600 B.C.), in which the main character experiences shock and depression after ← 1 | 2 → the sudden death of his companion Enkidu. Gilgamesh realizes his own mortality, seeks eternal life in vain, and is finally resigned to human destiny. Other ancient texts—the Vedas, Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament, among others—address the subject of death and dying with alacrity and courage.

Countless poets, fiction writers, dramatists, and nonfiction writers of the later generations have also addressed death and dying in their works—sometimes as a central issue, other times as a tangential issue. Nevertheless, it is inevitable for a literary text to deal with death because it is an integral part of our human existence. Disparate works such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Siegfried Sassoon’s The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1918), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2006) testify to the pervasiveness of the theme of death in literature.

Death has served as an important literary device for many texts. An obvious example of this is the use of the elegy. Poems like Catullus’ (c. 84–54 BC) Carmen 101, Thomas Gray’s “An Elegy Written in the Country Church Yard” (1751), and W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939) use death as a tool for expressing sorrow and lamentation over someone’s departure from this world. Death as a literary device is also exemplified in the death of heroes in tragic works, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (429 BC) and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601). More recent examples include The Vampire Diaries, a vampire horror series of novels by L. J. Smith.

In the Eastern world, many pre-modern poets in Japan, China, and Korea composed poems mourning their own deaths. Japanese Death Poems Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death (1986), compiled by Yoel Hoffmann, illustrates the various emotions people experience during their last moments on earth. In 2011, a similar collection appeared in the United States: Dreams Wander On: Contemporary Poems of Death Awareness. Edited by California haiku poet Robert Epstein, it compiles approximately 400 haiku, tanka, and longer verses written by present-day English-language poets.

Recently, interest in death and dying has taken an even more somber turn. This interest is reflected in the postmodern emphasis on the demise of the self- articulated as “the death of the subject,” the “death of the author,” and the “terminal identity.” This posthuman loss is expressed most acutely in the works of writers such as Kurt Vonnegut (The Sirens of Titan, 1959), William S. Burroughs (The Soft Machine, 1961), John Barth (Giles Goat-Boy, 1966), Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968), Samuel Beckett (The Lost Ones, 1970), and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973), all of whom wrestle with the consequences of the absorption of humanity into the technology machine. A number of these authors apply cybernetic theory to the structure and style of their work. The greater impact of the end of humanity in these works is the crumbling of the foundations of truth and meaning. ← 2 | 3 →

As death and dying came to attract keen attention from various fields of study, thanatologists have frequently turned to literature in their study of death and the phenomena and practices related to it. Considering that death and dying is a prominent theme, motif, and symbol in literature, it is no wonder that they find literary works resourceful. Our aim in editing The Final Crossing: Death and Dying in Literature was to collect scholarly essays on death and dying in literature for those who might be interested in this fundamental but largely ignored topic in literary studies. The current volume is a collection of seventeen original academic essays on death and dying in world literature, including British and American texts. Contributions come from scholars with a background in literature, cultural studies, or humanities.

The essays are grouped in five thematic categories. Part One, “Death as a Reflection of Cultural Meaning and Symbolism,” discusses the ways in which death-related texts contain cultural and social meanings. In her study, Carol Leff analyzes four short graveyard stories by Herman Charles Bosman. In Bosman’s texts, graves symbolize memories from the past and thus serve as a means of adjoining people, time, place, and culture. Colin Yeo, on the other hand, focuses on burial sites in early modern English poetry. He investigates the imagery of death and its ability to produce feelings of grief, sadness, and melancholy in Renaissance verse. Meanwhile, Marwan A. and Myrna A. Nader discuss Elizabeth Bishop’s postmodern agnostic poetry on death in light of Christian and Muslim beliefs. Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England” echoes Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which in turn was influenced by the twelfth-century Hayy ibn Yaqza-n by Ibn Tufayl. Another poem, “The Man-Moth,” shows the influence of both Dante’s The Divine Comedy and the eleventh-century Kitāb al-Mirāj (“Book of the Ascension”). The Naders emphasize that a common theme among religions is death as a focus of existence.

In the second part of the volume, “Death as a Literacy Device,” three essays examine death’s impact on a story’s outcome. Through her comparative study of Julia Kristeva’s novel Possessions and Susan Sontag’s novel Death Kit, Heather H. Yeung explores how death resides beyond the limits of the senses and of language. Meanwhile, Daniela Chana investigates how death serves as an instrument for social critique in young Italian fiction from the late 1990s. Based on the strange brutality illustrated in stories such as Simona Vinci’s “In Every Sense Like Love,” Chana argues that macabre images of death are often tools for criticizing restrictive morals or double standards in society. Another study, by John Pennington, discusses George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden with emphasis on their comparable representations of death. In MacDonald’s text, which mixes fantasy and realism, death is not something to fear; indeed, there is more life in death. Likewise, Burnett’s realistic novel represents death as something to embrace. Both authors create a luminal space in which the living can interact with the dead. ← 3 | 4 →

Part Three, “Those Left Behind,” investigates the experiences of individuals whose lives are deeply impacted by death, as well as the coping mechanisms to which they adhere. Rebekah M. Fowler, for instance, discusses the stages of grief—as expounded by John Bowlby and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross—in Sir Orfeo, a Middle English narrative poem. Fowler’s study reveals both the timelessness of death’s emotional impact and the comfort of grief’s eventual subsiding. Another scholar, Carolyn Ownbey, takes a different route in her examination of melancholia through Seamus Heaney’s poem “Casualty” (1979). In the poem, Heaney reveals a psychological trauma caused by a loss of his acquaintance in sectarian violence; his pathological mourning appears as the only appropriate response to such trauma. Ownbey explores this kind of interminable melancholia through Jacques Derrida’s figure of the ghost and his engagement with the idea of mourning and melancholia in general. Finally, Kelly Leavitt discusses the non-endings in Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (1947) and Aharon Appelfeld’s The Immortal Bartfuss (1988). In addition to discussing two contrasting narrative approaches to survivor texts, Leavitt’s study analyzes the problematic aspects of memory and trauma, which are transferred from victimized author to text.

Essays in Part Four, “Death and Postmodernism,” approach death through the eyes of the late twentieth-century movement. In her study, Hannah Farrell explains how postmodern Gothic works, such as Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, differ from traditional Gothic writings in their treatment of death. In traditional Gothic tales, death is an obstacle that must be overcome before the loved ones can be reunited. In contrast, Spark’s novel shows that it is only by seeking death that the protagonist forms significant personal relationships. Farrell notes that, over time, the standards of romance and reality have substantially changed. In her study of two postmodern novels, Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996) and Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned (2011), Claudia Desblaches provides an intriguing perspective on the role of death as taboo. After discussing the figures of death, the practice of death, and the ways to handle death’s incomprehensibility, she concludes that both novels invite readers to understand death as a gift—as a vivid entity to face and embellish before we all perish. In the final essay of this part, Lori Smurthwaite discusses how the blurred line between truth (memory) and fiction (imagination) allows for a “story-truth” in Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. According to Smurthwaite, indeterminacy in his novel reflects the postmodern assumption that the truth of experience is fragmented and cannot be contained within a single unified perspective or narrative.

In the final part of the volume, “Death as an Expression of Personal Experience,” three scholars explore the ways in which a text reflects its author’s, or a character’s, personal experience with death. One contributor, James Brown, discusses the near universality and cultural specificity of mourning in Homer’s Iliad, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary. The essay ← 4 | 5 → considers the representation of tears and mourning in the three texts and explores some problems relating to the public expression of emotion and the shaping of its forms. Meanwhile, John J. Han focuses on John Steinbeck’s preoccupation with, and intimate knowledge of, death and dying. As a humanist who does not believe in the afterlife, Steinbeck advocates intense living, quick and painless death, and euthanasia in his fiction and nonfiction. Han concludes that Steinbeck’s works are a window into post-Christian fiction that approaches death and dying from a more humanistic, less religious, angle. Finally, Debra L. Cumberland examines death in Willa Cather’s fiction. Cather’s characters accept the inevitability of death; for her, it was not so much about death, but about how life was lived. Characters in Cather thus teach us more about how to live than how to die. Cather imbued the heroic in her novel with a sense of vocation and purpose intended to provide meaning both to themselves as well as to those around them; for Cather, defying death meant to live fully and gloriously.

Dozens of scholarly books on death and dying already exist. However, the majority of them are written by non-literary scholars who turn to literature as an important medium for discussing death and dying as a sociological, psychological, and ethical issue. There are few book-length works on death and dying in literature written for literary scholars and students. Leslie A. Field’s Love and Death in the American Novel (Criterion Books, 1960; rev. Stein and Day, 1966) is an early book-length work that partially discusses death in American fiction. In 1988, Marian S. Pyles published Death and Dying in Children’s and Young People’s Literature: A Survey and Bibliography (McFarland). In addition to the author’s introduction and a bibliography, the book includes six chapters: “Folklore,” “The Death of a Pet,” “The Death of a Friend,” “The Death of a Relative,” “One’s Own Death,” and “Conclusion.” Although the book is regarded as an important study of thanatology in literature, it is limited to children’s and adolescent writing. Also, the author’s discussions are focused exclusively on death as an expression of personal experience.

The most recent critical contribution to the theme of death and dying in literature is the volume Death and Dying in Bloom’s Literary Themes series (Blooms Literary Criticism, 2009). It is a collection of 20 essays that explore the motif of death in such classic literary works as Farewell to Arms, Heart of Darkness, King Lear, and Lord of the Flies, among others. Each writer examines not only how the theme of death and dying reflects the particular cultural values of the time (such as the fear of death and religious doubt of modernity), but also enduring and universal metaphors not bound by specific cultural categories that are often revealed in great works. Although Bloom’s book is meaningful as the first compendium of writings on death and dying in literature, the essays are of uneven lengths (anywhere between 3 and 23 pages), and many are reprints of previous publications, one of which is from 1917. Almost all the texts under discussion are by American ← 5 | 6 → or British authors; the only three non-Anglo-Saxon authors are Aeschylus, Remarque, and García Márquez.


VIII, 254
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Diversity Perspective Concepts
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. VIII, 254 pp.

Biographical notes

John J. Han (Volume editor) Clark C. Triplett (Volume editor)

John J. Han is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Missouri Baptist University, where he also chairs the Humanities Division. He is the editor of Wise Blood: A Re-Consideration (2011) and serves as editor of Intégrité: A Faith and Learning Journal and Cantos: A Literary and Arts Journal. His articles have appeared in many journals and essay collections, such as Journal of Transnational American Studies, Literature and Belief, The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck, Steinbeck Studies, and The Steinbeck Review. Author of five haiku collections, he has also published poems in periodicals and anthologies worldwide, including Frogpond, Modern Haiku, and World Haiku Review. He earned his MA and his PhD from Kansas State University and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, respectively. C. Clark Triplett is Vice President for Graduate Studies and Academic Program Review and Professor of Psychology/Sociology at Missouri Baptist University. He earned an AA from Hannibal-LaGrange College, a BA from Southwest Baptist University, an MDiv. from Covenant Theological Seminary, an MSEd from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and a PhD from Saint Louis University. He also studied at Concordia Seminary, the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, and the Harvard Institutes. A licensed counselor, he has published academic articles and book reviews in Intégrité: A Faith and Learning Journal.


Title: The Final Crossing