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Death’s Place in Life, a Literature-led Conversation

by Lisa Wilbourne

To engage the community in conversation about death and dying, two groups came together at City Hall on April 18, the city’s Human Relations Council and the End of Life Care Coalition of Eastern Carolina.

saramagoThe eight-person panel held a televised discussion on Nobel-prize winning José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, a book described by discussion moderator and Assistant Dean of Diversity at the Brody School of Medicine Todd Savitt as having three parts. The first part describes the challenges that face a country where death has taken a hiatus. The second part changes the focus to death as a character who finally relents from her strike and changes the rules–now providing a week’s notice to all before she strikes. Continuing the focus on death as a character, the third part sees her take on human form and fall in love.

The discussion panel, Greenville community members culled from a variety of fields, was chosen to provide special insight into some of the book’s themes. It was comprised of local business owner and Human Relations Council member, Enji Abdo; freelance and creative writer and city council member, Marion Blackburn; office manager at East Carolina University’s Lucille W. Gorham Intergenerational Community Center, Andrea Bristol; licensed mortician at W.E. Flanagan’s Memorial Funeral Home and bereavement counselor, Lynette Hammond; Red Oak Christian Church minister, Craig Kirby-Grove; physician with the Division of Pulmonary Care at Vidant Medical Center, Mark Mazer; clinical psychologist, Ave’ Maria Renard; accountant and Human Relations Council member, Heena Shah.

The most thorough discussion was on the distinction between death and dying. In the novel, death’s hiatus does not stop the process of dying. Thousands of people are left on the brink of death, too feeble to live, but incapable of ceasing to do so.

Going farther, Mazer drew the comparison between the action in the novel and current end-of-life practices that similarly hold off that final step of dying. He continued by asking what society’s responsibility is in these cases, including the financial considerations. Is it right to suspend a person’s death in this way so family members can grieve or resolve their own emotional troubles? What is the government’s role in making these decisions, and what should it be?

Another topic, sprung from but not directly relatable to the book, was whether death is a necessary part of religion.

Though discussion mostly revolved around issues of death, the more literary aspects of the book received some attention. Why was the death character female? How does death taking on human form change her?

The only person to put forward a sort of moral to the book was Blackburn. Self-identifying as a romantic, she suggested love is really what the book is about, understanding the final part of the book as a message about love as a necessary part of living well.


Editor’s note: I, too, read the book. It provided a great launching point for examining individuals’ and society’s relationship with death. The panel members each brought a unique perspective to an important discussion.

But it is a disservice to this piece of literature to use it merely as a platform for end-of-life issues in the world today.

I have read a few other books by Saramago. This one is very similar in style–long sentences, dialogue written in unconventional form, stylistic instead of grammatical use of capitalization and punctuation, etc..

One way this book struck me as different from Saramago’s others is in the seeming lack of cohesion. Does the first part create a unified whole with the second and third parts? Introducing the main character nearly half way through the book is an unusual choice for any novel and leaves a sense of severed action. How can we unite these parts–the in-depth look at a society trying to deal with the termination of death, and the personal look at death as a character–into one story?

Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this book. I would love to keep this conversation going.

I leave you with a quote from the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, a poem from ancient Greece, perhaps written in 7th or 6th century BCE, about the goddess Eos, aka Dawn, who asks Zeus for eternal life for her lover, Tithonus, but fails to request eternal youth.

But when hateful old age was pressing hard on him, with all its might,

and he couldn’t move his limbs, much less lift them up,

then in her thûmos she thought up this plan, a very good one indeed:

she put him in her chamber, and she closed the shining doors over him.

From there his voice pours out—it seems never to end—and he has no strength at all,

the kind he used to have in his limbs when they could still bend.


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Responses (7)

  1. Esther Hammond says:

    Enjoyed being asked to participate on this panel and opening dialogue on a critical issue facing our society today..the fear of death. Kudos to EOLC, Carol Leatherman, Human Relations Council and Greenville Guardian for this review. Esther Lynette Hammond

    • Lisa Wilbourne says:

      I’m glad you participated, Lynette.
      During the discussion, you said the book forced you to think about how you would adjust your job if you were in the same situation as the people in the country deprived of death. Did you come up with a solution?

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I wish I had been there. It sounds like it was an interesting discussion. I love the passage you close with. It seems like Saramago makes reference to ancient Greece often, The Cave is the most obvious reference to a Greek, but I remember mythology or philosophy coming up in other books, too. I wonder if he had this passage in mind when he conceived the story. That doesn’t seem like a stretch. Is it always good for love to overcome death? I like that question. Maybe a bio-ethicist would have been a good addition to the panel.

    • Lisa Wilbourne says:

      You know, your question makes me think that perhaps love–and I’m willing to accept that love is the force that made it impossible for death to kill the man–was sent to death as a punishment for her antics in the first part of the book. So she has to experience the same thing with a man she loves that she forced upon a nation when she took her break.

  3. Carol Collins says:

    You all have inspired me to read this book!

  4. […] The coalition works to make that conversation less stressful by reaching out to the community through their clinics and other public events, such as their 2013 panel discussion on José Saramago’s novel Death with Interruptions. […]

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