by Kelly Everding
Discomfort with death has become ingrained in the modern American psyche. Unless you are a very enlightened Buddhist or a worker at a hospice, you probably push the idea that you are going to die to the back of your mind. Death is a disease. Death is failure. Death is anathema, and any discussion of or preparation for that final frontier of knowledge is deemed a downer.
The deep-seated fear of death needs to be drawn out into the open, and many books on death are available to meet this need. Some are practical books on grieving or preparing wills, but others try to look at death from a more personal angle. Passings: Death, Dying, and Unexplained Phenomena is one such book, and it provides a fascinating dimension to the discussion about death. The author, Carole A. Travis-Henikoff, is no stranger to taboo subjects (she also wrote Dinner with a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo), and she is a well-regarded independent researcher in paleoanthropology. In her introduction, Travis-Henikoff explains the impetus behind her personal account: “woven within the threads of every death were anomalous occurrences that my pragmatic, science-loving brain couldn’t explain . . . So it is that Passings explores many deaths, intense human emotions and mind-bending occurrences universally experienced in proximity to death, all encompassed within a cocoon of research.”
Travis-Henikoff has experienced an inordinate amount of death throughout her six plus decades of life. At the age of 11, she nearly died of an acute asthmatic attack, and had a near-death experience; she remembers every detail of moving down a dark tunnel toward a bright light, only to be turned back by three figures. Since this auspicious introduction to death, Travis-Henikoff recounts the natural and not-so-natural deaths of many members of her family, some of which were accompanied by strange sightings and presentiments. Interspersed between these engaging, harrowing, and illuminating stories are references to research she conducts on different beliefs in the afterlife and occurrences of unexplainable phenomena surrounding death. These are personal, painful, and emotional accounts of the loss of her parents, her husbands, and her first-born child. Everyone will go through this sorrow at some point in their life, and even though it is inevitable, it helps to hear how other people cope so that we may learn to cope. And acknowledging our fear of death may become tolerable as we learn the role it plays in the spiritual progress of the soul: “Both Taoists and Buddhists believe that it is only our natural fear of death that keeps us here working through our karma and living out our lives regardless of circumstances.”
What makes Passings stand out more than most books on death are the incidents of unexplained phenomena surrounding some of the deaths the author experienced. When she hesitantly shared some of these experiences with her colleagues—many of them well-respected and staunch scientists—she was startled to discover that they, too, had stories to tell about visions of deceased loved ones, pillars of lights, and other strange occurrences. Yet, while there is an inherent fear of death, the fear of appearing crazy may be even greater, so many people don’t say anything when they experience such phenomena. Carole Travis-Henikoff bravely and fearlessly lays out her story and lets the reader decide what to believe.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010