Several people have asked me recently to recommend some works on ageing and death and dying that could be consumed for general edification and (for want of a better word) enjoyment rather than as part of a set curriculum on gerontology or the psychology of ageing. A lot of my recommendations have been for more formal academic works and probably wouldn’t be appealing to readers of this blog. However, as it happens, I have encountered a couple of more generally accessible works new to me over the last couple of months and I would like to share my recommendation of them with you.
I find that one of the hardest areas to examine from an academic perspective is intergenerational relationships, particularly within families. The danger is that any attempt to examine such a complex area requires of necessity some simplification of the factors involved, and this in turn robs the subject of much of its richness. You have to turn to real life to get the complete picture. However, this is easier said than done. Not everyone has access to an extended family, and there are obvious ethical restrictions on planting hidden cameras in family homes to observe the goings-on. However, the movie Still Walking (available on DVD and also Blu ray in some parts of the world) offers a wonderful insight into cross-generation family relationships. Before we go further, I should say that the movie in in Japanese, so if you have an allergic reaction to subtitles, then you might want to skip the next few lines of text.
The movie was released in 2008, by the acclaimed director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The plot centres on an older couple living in Japan. Many years earlier, one of their sons was drowned saving a boy from the same fate. The surviving members of the family meet annually at the couple’s house to reminisce and pay a visit to the grave. Well, I can hear you say, this sounds a laugh a minute blast; I’ll just get the popcorn. The reality is that the death is essentially a pretext to examine the family members as they travel to the house and then quietly bicker or are glacially polite as everyone remains on their best behaviour so as to avoid a row. Any reader who has visited relatives out of obligation rather than enjoyment will recognise many of the scenes, from the discussion on the journey there about whether they could get away with returning on a late train that night rather than stop over, to (for the sake of keeping the peace) swallowing a jaw-dropping insult delivered by the head of the family over the dinner table.
At the centre are the older couple themselves – a retired (against his will) doctor and his wife, who seems at first to be the sweet granny type, but has some rather unlovable prejudices and passive aggression. The doctor is a dictatorial unreconstructed chauvinist who is clearly disappointed that nobody followed into his profession and is patently displeased with his surviving son’s choice of profession and wife. As the film develops, so the slow simmering resentments that have clouded their lives become apparent. And yet this is not a wilfully miserable movie: each character has their bad and their good points, and even the doctor has his lovable side. There are no really surprising dramatic moments in the film, no major rows leading to an improbable Hollywood-style reconciliation of all involved. At the end of the movie, nobody has really changed, as is clear by the conversations of the various characters after everyone is on the way to their respective homes. But the observation of the characters is so realistic, so acutely observed, that you feel you have been a voyeur on real events. And you will have gained insights into how the aims and wishes of different generations can lead to both disappointment and love.
The other item to recommend to you is The Enneagram of Death, by Elizabeth Wagele, who has her own blog on this site, I believe. In case you don’t know, an Enneagram is a means of categorising personality into nine basic types. This book examines how people who are dying or close to someone who is dying can find solace. I personally am not convinced that the enneagram is the best way of categorising personality. However, that is not really the point. The purpose of this book is to find insight into the process of dying for the purposes of comfort rather than necessarily academic abstraction. The book is rich in ideas and numerous case studies and you would have to have a heart of flint not to be moved and inspired by some of the stories. Warmly recommended.