America's New Obsession with Death

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Was it so long ago when discretion ruled the TV newsroom? At a car crash or a murder scene, the TV camera used to shy away from intimate postures of death.

Not any more. Something is changing in America. We are growing more interested in death, even besotted by death.


We Americans used to be famous for ignoring death. People didn't die in America, they "passed away." Violence and death were not unknown to us -- the Civil War, the Wild West. But perhaps because there was so much death, we turned away and made youth our national theme.

Today, it is precisely the death of the young that astonishes us and makes death so inescapable. The old are living longer. The young are in jeopardy.


In East Oakland, in the broken heart of the city, stands a mortuary, a thriving business these days. The undertaker says he buries the young more often than he buries the old. And he says: "Kids in the neighborhood often come by, hang out; the littlest kids come in to look at the corpses."

Throughout this century young Americans went off to foreign wars. Many returned, dazed, shell-shocked; we didn't understand what they were trying to tell us about the horror of war. In today's America, young children live with Death as a schoolmate. Death lingers in the high school hallway. Death walks behind you on the way home. Death peers out of a passing car. One boy recently told me: "I'm either going to grow up to be a rap artist or I'll be murdered."

It is not only the young in the inner city who are haunted by death. Teen suicide is on the rise in the American suburbs. And to American children both in the suburbs and the inner city who say they are numb, Death promises ultimate sensation. Death becomes a trip beyond drugs.

The fatalism of the young has changed adult perceptions of death. When I was a kid, Halloween was no big deal. You put on a mask; you went out; you filled your bag full of candy. You got sick of all the candy. As a kid, I would never have imagined that Halloween would ever become an adult celebration. Yet on Halloween this year there were bank tellers and typists throughout downtown San Francisco, in broad daylight, in costume.

Homosexuals were the first to make Halloween an adult festival in the 1970s. Gays knew all about costume long before that. What was interesting on Halloween night in the Castro district was that Death was everywhere in the crowd of masks: Nicole Simpson, vampire lovers. At a time of AIDS, Death was the invited guest at the street fair.

Ancient cultures learn to make their peace with death. Early in November, in Mexico, for centuries, on the Dia de los Muertos (the Catholic Feast of All Souls) Mexicans visit the graves of their relatives. Mexicans bring food for the dead; they clean up the grave site; they linger and talk to the ghosts; they sing; get drunk; they even poke fun of death by sucking on candy skulls.

There is a thin line between morbidity and the acceptance of death. Here in the United States, we have never had an easy relationship with death. Now that death is everywhere -- in the morning paper, on our TV screen -- now that the young are dying of guns, of AIDS, of drugs, we cannot use the idea of youth to evade death.

Death forces its way into our lives. We have turned morbid. We linger over every detail of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Simpson's murders. We expect to see the bodies taken away from the bus in Tel Aviv after the terrorist bomb has exploded. We are like children.


Anne Rice, the novelist, has caught the spirit of these times with her romances about death. These days Tom Cruise appears on the movie screen as Anne Rice's leading man, a vampire.

The boy next door has become an erotic lover as Death. It is a decadent fantasy, appropriate to a time when children murder children and young people pass a virus to one another in a fevered embrace.

We pay seven bucks to see death disguised as Tom Cruise, the boy next door, stealing his way into our bedroom.

Richard Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation," wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.