Death: The Trip Of A Lifetime

Steve Hall, Television Editor, Indianapolis Star -- "Remember the first dead body you saw? For me, the childhood trip to the funeral home to see my grandfather's corpse is still vivid. I remember the scratchy church clothes, the hushed tones of those in the viewing room, the subdued lighting. And inside the casket was my grandfather--or, at least, a thing vaguely resembling him.

Thanks to makeup, this thing had a ruddy, healthy look to it: in life, my grandfather was pale. This thing was clean-shaven: my grandfather's chin had a perpetual stubble that smelled like his chewing tobacco. This thing, in fact, looked more like a mannequin than Jack L. Hall.

Clearly, the lively spirit that was my grandfather was no longer in there--although no one could explain exactly where he had gone.

Tha chasm between life and death has fascinated mankind for centuries, and Greg Palmer examines it as part of a fascinating four-part public television series, Death: The Trip of a Lifetime. Sardonic, chubby and balding, Palmer correctly observes, 'Death, not space, is the final frontier.'

The Seattle broadcaster has turned probably THE most frightening subject known to man into a series that is poignant, wryly funny, provocative and offbeat as all get out. By examining the ways various cultures deal with death and dying, there series shows how death influences the way people live.

Palmer approaches the subject with an open mind and a frequent-flier ticket. The self-described 'unbaptized Unitarian' sits in with a Mexican family preparing a feast of fruit and Coca-Cola for departed relatives on the nation's Night of the Dead. He wades into a purported Fountain of Youth in Warm Mineral Springs, Fla. He interviews a Ghanan [sic] whose coffins are shaped like luxury cars, outboard motors and giant chickens.

Palmer bounces all over this subject, and the globe, like a pinball in full tilt. But his wanderings never seem erratic.

One detour, for instance, dwells on how some cultures regard death more as a symbolic moment than a physical one. One Indonesian family is shown having a funeral for a relative who died a year ago. Until they could save up the money for the elaborate ceremonies, they hung the corpse in the house, talked to it, and provided it three meals a day.

A strange idea, right? No, Palmer points out. He logically jumps to images of the elderly shut away from society in nursing homes--our version of 'symbolic' death. In retrospect, the Indonesian practice seems kindlier than our own.

The four episodes are divided neatly into four topics--the fascination with death; the measure people worldwide take to control their death; the rituals associated with death; and belief in an afterlife.

Given the subject, the use of humor may surprise viewers.

Palmer, for instance, visits the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in California, where people are cryonically frozen to theoretically be resurrected in a more technologically superior era. He describes Alcor's founder as 'a cross between St. Peter and Frosty the Snowman.'

A London psychiatrist fascinated with graveyards is introduced as knowing 'where the bodies are buried.' And one of the more eccentric interviews comes with an Australian who bought a coffin to use as a couch until his demise.

But Death's no laugh riot. Some of the eclectic human stories here invariably tug at the heart strings.

A discussion of American kids glorying in violent movies and video games leads into a segment on the a Cambodian woman who witnessed atrocities by the Khmer Rouge. Although nothing is physically wrong with her eyes, the horror of what she saw made her go blind.

Likewise, in program 2, The Good Death, the family of a 7-year-old bone marrow transplant recipient talks about how accepting the reality of her possible death brought them closer together.

Ultimately, death remains a mystery even a public TV series can't crack, but Trip of a Lifetime is still absorbing viewing. After all, this is one trip all of us will take."