Death Books

Martin E. Marty

March 7, 2016

Religion in political campaigns, church-state controversies, clerical abuse scandals, and abortion arguments, received due (and over-due?) attention in the media for another week. Having sighted more than enough items in those now-familiar fields, we looked for attention to and coverage of religion as it is experienced regularly by most people. One event that reaches not only “most,” but “all,” people is death. The obituaries are full of religious references, quite naturally, but there are also many philosophical treatments of this universal experience.

This week’s “for example” is Daniel Akst’s “Facing Up to Death,” a review of Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour. Among those in Roiphe’s book (Wall Street Journal, Mar. 4) are several recent “facing-up-to” writers including Susan Sontag, John Updike, James Salter and Maurice Sendak. 

Ms. Roiphe: “The beauty I found in these deaths was what surprised me, the life rushing in, the vastness of the work, the great, sometimes deranged seeming courage, the mad love in the last moments.” She momentarily lightens her tone, as one may or must, by citing famous deathologist Woody Allen, who, knowing he could not “solve the problem of dying” wrote, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”

Reviewer Akst dwells most on Roiphe’s treatment of Susan Sontag, whose quoted comments suggest that bleakness when dying is unrelieved by even the most vague religious or philosophical interpretations of the inevitable. Roiphe, we read, is “ruthless” in this case, about Sontag as the dying intellectual, determined against all odds not to give in to her third bout with cancer.

We also read that Sontag is seen by Roiphe as “a dishonest, self-mythologizing prima donna whose delusional refusal to accept death is indulged by high-powers doctors and wealthy friends.” No one, not even her noted author son, David Rieff, had the nerve to counsel her to leave behind the vain attempt to perpetuate herself.

When the last painful medical attempt to prolong her life fails, a physician’s assistant offered counsel: “You might want to take this time to concentrate on your spiritual values.” Sontag: “I have no spiritual values.” Then: “You might want to take this time to be with your friends.” Sontag: “I have no friends.” Her son couldn’t even tell her that he loved her, “because this would mean admitting that she is dying.”

Our focus here, which fosters the intention to render this story as a parable, cannot do justice to Sontag and son, and could be read as nothing more than a comment on the difficulty everyone has with dying, even with “spiritual values” and “friends.” This Sightings, recall, took off as a reflection on the question of what gets covered in media treatments of religion, as when religious publics reduce “spiritual values” to corrupt, demeaning, and manipulative uses of faith within national life.

With that in mind, Akst, Roiphe, Salter-Updike-Sendak and, yes, Sontag serve well as reminders of dimensions of “public religion” which are overlookable when the agonies and dreams of individual strugglers or signs of generosity and full humanity get upstaged, eclipsed, obscured and forgotten.

Many creative people are working these days to address the ars moriendi, the art of dying, and they can help and be helped by others who would enhance the art of reporting and reflecting on the deep and inescapable elements that religious concerns, at their best, address.


Roiphe, Katie. The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End. New York: Dial Press, 2016.

Akst, Daniel. “Facing Up to Death: Writers who didn’t go gentle into that good night.” Review of The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe. Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2016, Arts/Books/Bookshelf.

For John Updike’s poem inspired by the resurrection of Jesus, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” and seven responses to this poem including by David E. Anderson, senior editor at Religion News Service, read “Updike & Easter, 2015: Seven Voices on ‘Seven Stanzas.’” Deep Roots: Roots Music & Meaningful Matters, April 3, 2015, Features/News.

Roiphe, Katie. “Rabbit at Rest: The bizarre and misguided critical assault on John Updike’s reputation.” Slate, January 27, 2012.

Rourke, Mary. “John Updike dies at 76; Pulitzer-winning author.” Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2009.

Leonard, John. “Not What Happened but Why: Regarding the Pain.” Review of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. New York Times, March 23, 2003, Books.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’.” Published in 1964.

Susan Sontag.” The Economist, January 6, 2005, Obituary.

Hirsch, Edward. “James Salter, The Art of Fiction No. 133.” Interview of James Salter. The Paris Review 127 (Summer 1993).

Carlson, Michael. “James Salter obituary.” The Guardian, June 22, 2015, Books.

Krystal, Becky. “Maurice Sendak dies; author and illustrator of children’s books about fear and survival.” Washington Post, May 8, 2012, Books.

Image Credit: Funeral; Kzenon / creative commons.

0.jpegAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at



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Jean Lescher:

A group of women in our retirement community here have been discussing NYTimes Bestselling book "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande. a medical doctor deploring the "medical" approach to death and dying.  We are sending copies of the book to family and friends as well.  The author fully supports enabling the dying to live fully until the end, ascertaining and helping them achieve the dreams they could convey for last days. We discussed this book for two months.  All of us are over 80.  

See all articles by Martin E. Marty