Boomers’ Last Frontier: Achieving Perfect Death : Dying: Unable to avoid mortality, the Yuppie generation is trying to manage it. But isn’t this just the latest trivialization of life?

<i> Suzanne Gordon, the author of "Prisoner of Men's Dreams," is working on a book about the nursing profession. </i>

The baby-boom generation is the first to be shepherded through life by a mass-media culture that turns the mundane occurrences and eternal transitions of life into brand-new events. With help from the commercial marketplace, boomers are encouraged to have lifestyles rather than lives, and to substitute conspicuous consumption for reflection.

Today, boomers are confronting the biggie--mortality. Many members of the baby-boom generation have finally got it--death is definitely not optional. To temper the blow, however, boomers can turn to the “death-awareness movement” and try to acquire the latest lifestyle fashion--the perfect death.

This is, of course, only the last in a long list of perfect experiences boomers have tried to orchestrate for themselves. First came sex and relationships. As if they were the first men and women ever to copulate or be on intimate terms, boomers in their late 20s and early 30s sought intimacy and connection and tried to fathom the unfathomable--why it is that men hate the women who love them, and women love too much.


Then--with or without intimacy--came child-bearing and the perfectly choreographed labor and delivery. The competitive spirit so characteristic of the well-heeled was much in evidence. Not only was dad at the hospital bedside, so were mom’s labor coach and a friend who would video every shriek, pant and contraction.

As these perfect infants and toddlers were soon to learn, growing up was serious business. As Discovery Toys put it, “Play is a child’s work” and workaholic boomers began tutoring their tots in the crib--if not in the womb. As if this weren’t enough, boomers entering middle age discovered there was another child to deal with--the child within.

Finally, of course, boomers are discovering that there is more involved in getting old than searching for one’s lost youth. Just as our parents began losing friends and loved ones in their 40s and 50s, boomers, too, are now losing those near and dear. Lest death should just happen to us in the messy, unmanageable way it happened to our parents, we boomers have decided to take charge--to turn it into a production. Added to the pressure to produce the perfect home, career, relationship and child comes the pressure to produce the perfect death.

The best death production--if you can temporarily arrange it--is the near-death experience. These brief trips to the other side, as in Peter Weir’s film, “Fearless” or Betty J. Eadie’s best-seller, “Embraced by the Light,” are ecstatic voyages of discovery. Some, like Weir, seem to believe death is just another lifestyle option.

When Jeff Bridges swallows that one last strawberry and goes into anaphylactic shock, we see his embodied spirit trying to decide whether to stay with his adoring wife, or go off into the unknown. He debates the issue for a few minutes, wistfully glances toward the diaphanous heavens that beckon, bethinks himself and decides to stay.

Since near-death experiences are so few and far between, most of us will have to cope with the real thing. And if we can’t mercifully go in our sleep or die instantly after being hit by a Mack truck, that leaves us with the prospect of one of those grim reapers like cancer or coronary artery disease. But not to worry, this, too, can be overcome--the trick is to die with all life’s problems resolved, all major relational loose ends neatly tied.


Older elites used to believe that the one who died with the most toys won. Boomers are now being taught that it’s the one with the least anger. Consider Michael Keaton in the movie, “My Life.” Happily, he has the money to spend on alternative healers, and with the help of the latest Sony equipment, he manages to acquire immortality. For his family, the wrenching business of bereavement is overcome just by popping the cassette in the VCR.

Perhaps there is a positive side to this: Maybe boomers will try to talk about their feelings if they or a loved one is dying and do something to control the physical pain our medical system seems to ignore. But it’s hard to believe that this new death-awareness isn’t simply another trivialization.

Human beings have always tried to flee mortality. But in facing loss, we may reap spiritual gain. And this generation, like others before it, will find there’s no way to control the final destination, with or without the Sony.