National Center for Death Education

COMMUNICATING WITH THE DEAD: TIMELESS
INSIGHTS AND INTERVENTIONS FROM THE ARTS
SANDRA L. BERTMAN, LCSW, PH.D., FT
Good Shepherd Community Care Institute, Newton, Massachusetts
ABSTRACT
T. S. Eliot’s profound poetic insight says it all: “We shall not cease from
exploration/And the end of all exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/
And know the place for the first time.” Nothing is static. Nothing is “new,”
and yet “knowing it for the first time” as Eliot suggests, is the precious
paradox that refutes the idea that we must break our bonds with the dead
in order to heal. Long before the “continuing bonds” term was coined,
the arts—literary, visual, musical—have been grappling with the ongoing
relationships between the living and the dead. This article illuminates
provocative examples of this communication from the expressive side
of human nature and offers commentary intended to stimulate further observation and reflection.
“Whatcha mean our course, kimosabe?” Trying to connect with Bob Kastenbaum
to plan “Death, Dying and Other Lethal Behaviors,” the fall course we were to
teach in the psychology department UMass Boston, was a series of rescheduling
mishaps. When we met finally a few days before the beginning of the term,
Bob informed me that he was heading up a heart study at Cushing Hospital
in Framingham, MA. He then added with that twinkle in his eye, “By the
way, what made you ever think I had any intention of co-teaching?” And so
began my long tenure at the University of Massachusetts, initially at the college
campus in Boston, and for the next 30+ years at the Medical and Nursing Schools
in Worcester.
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OMEGA, Vol. 70(1) 119-132, 2014-2015
Bob might have been the most accomplished Renaissance man of our generation. He was a brilliant, warm, funny multitalented man who appreciated outsidethe-box and other ways of thinking. Although my “non-linear” ways of knowing
frustrated me, they intrigued him. Bob was editing a book, Between Life and
Death, and the next thing I knew, I was summoned to contribute—to create a
chapter. In response to the invitation I penned, “Communicating with the Dead:
An Ongoing Experience as Expressed in Art, Literature, and Song” (1979, chapter
18, pp. 124-155). Thus, long before the “continuing bonds” term was coined
(Klass, Silverman, & Nickman, 1996), the concept was the basis of the chapter.
In this contribution honoring Bob, I am revisiting the dialogue Bob and I started
what seems like yesterday. T. S. Eliot’s profound poetic insight says it all: “We
shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all exploring/Will be to arrive
where we started/And know the place for the first time” (1944/1952, p. 145).
The dead, as most people studying grief and caring for the bereaved acknowledge, do not disappear from the lives of the living. They stay connected. Lively
communications continue between the two worlds. In this article I focus on
the communication as expressed through a work of art—a painting, an aria,
a poem, a comic strip. Sometimes these contacts are expressed in the symbolic
or ritualized form characteristic of a particular culture. Other contacts take a
more intimate and personal form, such as a straightforward conversation. Often
the contact is signaled by a memory, a dream, or by an object such as a piece of
Royal Copenhagen china, any of which can conjure up phantoms which demand
attention. Sometimes the living seek out the dead. At other times the dead
seek out the living. In this article, I have selected some examples that provide
the data for exploring the connectedness between the living and the dead. As
I write it, there is a fullness because I feel so connected with Bob Kastenbaum.
“SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW”1
The scene is serene and lively in John McCrae’s popular and widely reprinted
poem “In Flanders Field” (McCrae, 1933). Delicate red poppies blow gently in
the breezes, “and in the sky/The larks, still bravely singing, fly.” Evenly spaced
crosses mark the graves of the military dead. But don’t be fooled. The dead are
at rest, but it is not an eternal peace, permanent or nonreversible. In the poem
the dead can only rest if the living continue the fight in which they died.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
120 / BERTMAN
1 W. S. Churchill, Speech, House of Commons, August 20, 1940.
The faith we keep with the battlefield dead and national heroes is expressed
in designated holidays such as Memorial Day, Remembrance Day, Veterans’
Day, Pearl Harbor. We build statues, erect monuments, dedicate buildings, and
name streets to honor those who have died in the service of our country’s ideals.
Those honored dead are not consigned to obscurity. Their presence is annually
memorialized to remind us of their relevance.
Of course, there are those like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, always the
outsider, who was totally unimpressed by such heroisms. “But by and by she
let out that Moses had been dead a very long time; so then I didn’t care no more
about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people” (Twain, 1967, p. 12).
As a society, however, we do not forget our heroic dead. Our culture and
history direct us to be guided and inspired by the deeds and examples of dead
heroes. At times we find a symbiotic need to keep the dead hero alive, or at
least to continue to relate to the worshipped one. Fainting, throwing oneself on
the tombstone, digging up the grave of a rock singer or movie star, dressing
like and adopting the mannerisms of a particular personality suggest such a
desperation for attachment.
One way of maintaining the connection between the living and the beloved
dead is through song. The daring, young, misunderstood rebel James Dean,
the teen-aged idol of the 1950s, inspired many songs. Some are characterized by
active denial. Far from describing him at rest like the dead soldiers in Flanders
Fields, the imagery of three songs, “His Name was Dean” (Russe, 1955), “James
Dean, The Greatest of All” (Dalton, 1974a), and “The Ballad of James Dean”
(Dalton, 1974b) portray the actor’s death as merely a scene change. Nothing
is really different; the theater is simply relocated, the substitute director, God
(“Great Director did call”), and we, the audience, are replaced by a house of
celestial beings (“may the angels bid you welcome/as we bid you goodbye”).
The adolescent worshippers console themselves with the promise of continued relationship and interaction. Dean will still be available, as he always
was, acting in their dreams. Note the use of the present and future tense in
their assurance to him that no one will ever fill his space:
James, we’ll always love you
Now we collect everything we can about you—
Stories, pictures we even bought a record of your life
You’ll always win the academy award in our hearts. [emphasis added]
The intention is not just to memorialize by mementos, the promise is more than
not to forget. Their promise is to never let go.
In an e.e. cummings poem, similar imagery softens the harsh reality of the
death of a Wild West hero Buffalo Bill (1953, p. 85). The word “dead” is
never used; the hero is “defunct,” merely out of commission. Like James Dean,
a legend in his day, this handsome young cowboy and marksman is portrayed
as virile and extraordinary in death as he was in life. But unlike the Dean songs,
COMMUNICATING WITH THE DEAD / 121
the poem does not deny the loss. The speaker uses the past tense in eulogizing
and reminiscing.
[he] used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man…. [emphasis added]
The communication is directed not to Buffalo Bill but to Death itself in the
defiant question: “and what I want to know is/how do you like your blueeyed
boy/Mister death.”
Reading literature, not just the literature itself, is, for some people, a continuing
bond between the living reader and the dead author. “Love beyond the grave!
Love from people you will never meet! Love seeping through paper, parchment and ink!” (DeLaFaille, 1939, p. 27). Erica Jong recalls her amazement
at how a remote author—someone she didn’t know personally—could penetrate
the boundaries of her skin and touch her feelings. As a youngster she believed
writers must indeed be telepathic. She recalls how she used to “kiss the dust
jacket pictures of authors as if they were icons” (Jong, 1975, p. 35). Unlike
Huck Finn, when Jong discovered these writers were dead, she was astonished
because she had felt such a strong personal communication with them.
Painting too reflects the continuing bond between living and dead, both through
the artist’s view of his work and through others’ response to it. Vincent Van
Gogh articulated that deeply personal investment and relationship the artist has
to his creation. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote “Paintings have a life
of their own that derives entirely from the painter’s soul.” The artistry or work
of art becomes a means of self-exposure, the means through which a most
intimate inner life is projected outside to a public world. Don McLean, the
composer of “Starry Starry Night” (1971) speaks in song directly to the dead
painter Van Gogh. Each refrain returns to the singer’s painful awareness of
Van Gogh’s urgency to communicate his visions (“how you tried to set us free”),
of his empathy with the artist’s agony (“how you suffered for your sanity”),
and of the singer’s realization of the distance between the artist and his fellow
man (“they would not listen/they did not know how”). Society’s rejection
of Van Gogh (“for they could not love you”) results in the painter’s suicide
(“you took your life as lovers often do”). But the work of art outlives the man:
“Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
Elton John’s song “Candle in the Wind” was originally written about Marilyn
Monroe (“Goodbye Norma Jean”), who had died in 1973. John performed a
rewritten version of the song (“Goodbye England’s Rose”) in 2007 as a tribute
to Diana, Princess of Wales. It became one of the best-selling singles of all
time. Both these extraordinarily beautiful, talented celebrities “never knowing
122 / BERTMAN
who to cling to when the rain set in” died in their mid-30s, their candles, that
is, their lives, “burned out long before their legends ever did.”
“Candle in the Wind” was also dedicated to Ryan White, a 13-year-old living
with HIV who became a celebrity when his mother courageously fought AIDSrelated discrimination and helped educate the nation about his disease (John &
Taupin, 2010). He died at age 18 in 1990. At an AIDS Benefit Concert, Elton John
asked the audience to pray with him for Ryan who wasn’t doing well. Ryan died
the next day, Palm Sunday with his family, Elton John, and Michael Jackson at his
bedside. A few months after his death, Congress passed the Ryan White CARE
(Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act, legislation reauthorized four
times since now called the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. John credits his
sobriety for 20 years at the 20th year benefit concert celebrating the life and legacy
of this Indiana teen whose death inspired him to turn his life around.
TESTING THE BONDS:
AGENDAS NOBLE AND LESS SO
The relationship between the living and the dead often continues almost as
it was. The living communicate with the dead for many reasons, among them
to receive comfort, to blame for not being present, to make amends, or to seek
permission to go on with life. In her grieving Momma, the protagonist of Mel
Lazarus’s cartoon strip of the same name (Lazarus, 1977), seems to be permanently frozen in anger. She consistently berates her dead husband, Jerome, for
having left her. She must now shoulder the family burdens and make all the
decisions herself. “I’m worrying myself sick. . . . but I hope you’re enjoying your
harp!” In another sequence, she accuses Jerome of taking an eternal rest while
she, as usual, worries herself sick about the children (Francis has a new girlfriend
of whom Momma does not approve; Marylou might lose her job; Thomas is
taking a pay cut and working too hard; etc. etc.). Jerome listens to this recital of
woes, interrupting once to say, “That’s terrible. That’s really terrible.” As Momma
continues complaining, her deceased mate sighs audibly, “ I thought eternal rest
meant never having to say, That’s terrible.” Momma addresses him sharply:
“What was that Jerome?” to which he replies meekly, “Nothing dear, go on. . . .”
The psychological value of such a communication—of being able to get it
all out—is illustrated in the painting by George Catlin (1792-1872) “Village
of the Dead” (see Figure 1). An Indian woman, albeit in a more traditional
and respectful way than Momma, is depicted visiting the dried out skull of her
husband who has clearly been dead a long time. As Catlin reports:
Seldom passes a day that she does not visit it with a dish of the best
cooked food that her lodge affords which she sets before the skull at night
and returns for the dish in the morning . . . and she lingers to hold converse
and company with the dead . . . sitting or lying by the skull . . . talking to it in
the most pleasant and endearing language that she can use . . . and seemingly
COMMUNICATING WITH THE DEAD / 123
getting an answer back . . . frequently bringing her needlework with her . . .
chatting incessantly with it, while she is garnishing a pair of moccasins.
(http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/searchdocs/catlin
letter12.html)
And what, we can ask, of the dead? Are they merely disembodied, disinterested
entities who are personified only when their living counterparts need to obtain
comfort and support? Do they ever take the initiative to make contact? Do
they have the same need to find meaning, to explain themselves to themselves?
Do they have a need to deliver a message to others? In literature and the arts
we find a lot of different answers to those questions.
The dead may have their own “grief work” to do. For example, in the musical
Carousel (Hammerstein & Rogers, 1940), tough and free-spirited Billy married
tender Julie, lost his job, learned he was about to become a father, planned a
robbery, and killed himself to prevent being captured. After 15 years of Purgatory,
Billy is denied entrance to Heaven until he redeems his soul. He is permitted to
return to earth for 24 hours during which time he must perform at least one
good deed. Catching a glimpse of his unhappy teenage daughter he steals a star
to give her as a gift. Awkwardly, when he cannot persuade her to accept the
star he slaps her. But his slap transmits a kiss-like touch rather than a hurt and
allows his daughter to feel the love she needs in order to acquire the self-assurance
124 / BERTMAN
Figure 1. Catlin (circa 1850). Mandan Village of the Dead. b/w pencil.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian. Used with permission.
and confidence she lacks. On some level, Julie, too, is aware of the happening
and is reassured that she was right to have married Bill after all. In the song
“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Bill’s promises continued support and love and
we know Julie hears when she repeats and re-sings his words.
A most common—and consuming—reason for the dead to initiate communication is to avenge a wrong. Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s tragedy (1948,
pp. 885-934) and Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1915) return
to set things right, with, as we know, different results. Both works begin with
the spirit of the dead. Shakespeare’s play opens with the apparition of the
Ghost; the novel opens with the lines “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is
no doubt whatever about that.”
Hamlet’s father speaks directly to Hamlet, explaining his penance and charging Hamlet with the task of revenging his father’s murder:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night.
And for the day confined to fast in fire,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away….
Hamlet doubted the ghost, saying, “The spirit that I have seen/May be the
devil.” The father returns to remind him of the revenge he still must seek.
“Do not forget. This visitation is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.”
As the play moves toward its tragic conclusion, former indecisive and rather
ineffectual Hamlet breaks out of his bind of inaction. He avenges his father’s death
and, so doing, rids Denmark of the “something rotten.” Hamlet dies in the process
and is accorded a hero’s funeral. His ghost will not be restless as was his father’s.
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Marley had been Ebeneezer Scrooge’s business partner. He is doing penance
for not having “walked amongst his fellow-men” in life. His charge is to have
Scrooge avoid the error of his ways: “I wear the chain I forged in life; I am
here to warn you that you have a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” Marley’s
ghost promises three spirits will visit Scrooge to help understand his own history,
and to help him find ways to alter his life. In his last response to a spirit, Scrooge
vows to honor Christmas in his heart and try to keep it all the year. Formerly
ungenerous, unhappy, unkind, and unloved, Scrooge, who like Marley, had
never walked amongst his fellow man, is totally transformed. The novel informs
us Scrooge does, indeed, live up to his good intentions:
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the TotalAbstinence Principle ever afterwards; and it was always said of him that he
knew how to keep Christmas well. If any man alive possessed the knowledge.
And, of course, the Cratchit family has a nice Christmas too.
COMMUNICATING WITH THE DEAD / 125
Not everything rotten in the world left behind is made right. Within the
framework of a spoken ballad, the dead young man in A. E. Housman’s “Is My
Team Ploughing” (1963) interrogates his living friend about the life he had loved:
farming, football, his land, possessions, and prior relationships. As he talks, I
wonder if this dead man has completed his “grief work”? Is he no longer feeling
the pain of separation when he asks “Is my girl happy that I thought hard to
leave/And has she tired of weeping?” [emphasis added]. His continued concern
seems evident; feelings of possessiveness and of caring still exist. Earlier in this
verbal exchange, prior to the mention of the dead man’s sweetheart, the living
friend exhibited comfort and directness in his replies. Now his answers smack of
evasiveness, even an urgency to cut off the questions and end the conversation. Is
the dead man’s agenda to put this friend in touch with feelings of guilt and betrayal
because the friend is his girl friend’s lover? The concluding stanzas hint at this
way of understanding the conversation with their puns on “bed” and “lie easy.”
We could, of course, ask what right has the dead man to expect his girl friend to
remain faithful to him, but the possessiveness of young lovers seems to live on.
In the musical Fiddler on the Roof (Stein, 1964) we see a charming example
of chicanery using communication with the dead. The central character, Tevya,
blocks the arranged marriage of their daughter to the widower butcher by taking
advantage of his wife’s belief in the retributive powers of the dead. Tevya pretends
to be awakened from a bad dream that his wife, Goldie, offers to interpret
(“Tell me what you dreamt/And I’ll tell you what it meant”). Recreating the
dream in all its ghastly splendor, replete with bodies rising from their graves,
he describes a celebration at which all their loved ones who have now died are
present, especially Goldie’s grandmother Tzeitel, who returns from the grave to
bless the marriage of her namesake granddaughter, but not to the one she is
marrying, but to another. Goldie’s delighted interpretation: the dream is of their
daughter’s wedding to the widower butcher. The festivities are interrupted by the
entry of FrumaSarah, the butcher’s late wife. Furious at the thought of another
woman getting her furs and jewels, FrumaSarah screams her vindictive wedding
present—a union of 3 weeks followed by death to the bride. Goldie’s conclusion
is that the marriage with the butcher is not meant to be. Furthermore, concludes
Goldie, “If my grandmother Tsitel (may she rest in peace) took the trouble to
come all the way from the other world to tell me about the tailor, all I can say
is that it must be for the best.” Tevye chuckles to himself as he blows out the
candle and they return to sleep.
And is it chicanery or Carpe Diem?—to quicken one’s partner to consummation of the love act in the here and now. Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins,
To Make Much of Time” (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”; Herrick, 1963a,
p. 76); and “Corinna Going A-Maying (“Then while time serves, and we are
but decaying,/Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying”; Herrick, 1963b,
p. 76) voice the argument of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (Marvel,
1963, pp. 64-65): “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there
126 / BERTMAN
embrace.” Marvell uses the even less genteel imagery of maggots and worms
trying his lady’s “long preserved virginity” to convince the young virgin of the
negative consequences to postponing love-making.
Kastenbaum (Kastenbaum & Kastenbaum, 1989) sums up the term continuing
bonds that was first used in the title of the book, Continuing Bonds: New
Understandings of Grief (Klass, 1996) as referring to an aspect of the bereavement process which challenged the popular model of grief requiring the
bereaved to “let go” of or detach from the deceased. The data presented affirms
that maintaining links with the deceased leads to the construction of new relationships with them that continue and change over time, typically providing the
bereaved with comfort and solace. Most mourners struggling with their need
to find a place for the deceased in their lives are afraid of being seen as having
something wrong with them, and are often embarrassed to talk about it.
TOMMY vs. FREUD: DEATH ENDS A LIFE BUT
NOT A RELATIONSHIP
Sigmund Freud, recognizing the debilitating pervasiveness of grief, postulated the importance of expressing grief and detaching emotionally from the
deceased in order to recover full function. He stated that the task of mourning
is psychical and goal oriented: specifically, to detach the survivor’s memories
and hopes from the dead.
A series of drawings by Tommy, a youngster whose mother died of AIDS,
innocently and intuitively challenges Freud’s theory and speaks volumes about
continuing bonds. His first sketch (Figure 2A), all in black, is desolate, his
own figure alone in the foreground, observable tears dripping from his eyes,
his mother visible only by a gravestone marker in the background. The second
sketch (Figure 2B), still in black, adds his family, two siblings, and his father
grieving with him in the foreground. Tommy writes over a crossed out “dying,”
“I will be crying.” These early drawings of Tommy’s so perfectly capture the
amorphousness, the intensity, the emptiness of grief. Juxtapose the American
W. S. Merwin’s tiny poem Separation (1993) with any of these sketches: “Your
absence has gone through me like / Thread through a needle. / Everything I do
is stitched with its color.” Or, in this case, its lack of color.
In his final drawing (Figure 2C), a perfect metaphor for the power and solace
offered by the continuing bonds, Tommy still in the foreground but now smiling
and surrounded by colorful flowers, is visualizing and talking to his mom in
heaven (“the one with red lipstick”) who is smiling and singing with God,
his wife (“the fat dumpy one”), and all the friends and angels. He explains “She
doesn’t hurt anymore either and I can talk to her anytime I want.” Having relocated
his mother in his heart and memory, she is tenderly present whenever he wants
or needs to connect with her. Not to be misinterpreted, their connection is
further emphasized by the purple color of both their bodies. Tommy’s drawings
COMMUNICATING WITH THE DEAD / 127
are an exquisite literal and symbolic illustration of how death ends a life but
not a relationship.
DEATH ENDS A LIFE BUT NOT A RELATIONSHIP
Nothing is static. Relationships with the dead are revisited throughout one’s
lifetime. The first half of the opening and closing lines of Robert Anderson’s
film and play I Never Sang for My Father are, “Death ends a life but not a
relationship” (1974, p. 82). The competed statement, articulated at the end of the
play, reads “but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s
mind for some resolution, which it never finds.” Remarried 3 years after his wife’s
death, author Robert Anderson, in the conclusion to his moving retrospective
essay Notes of a Survivor, expresses a most realistic and sober account of the
continued communication between two bonded beings:
I have been married now for eleven years. It took enormous understanding
and generosity on the part of my wife, Teresa, to take me along with your
ghosts. We use the Royal Copenhagen porcelain [china brought with his
128 / BERTMAN
Figure 2A. Tommy: Helping Children Cope (AIDS Project).
©Ward Street Studio Archives. b/w (1 of 3). Used with permission.
wife Phyllis for a future both knew they’d never have]—by her choice
we live in the village next to the town where Phyllis and I had our cottage
which now I use as my studio. I have a new life; but though I have a new
life, I have an old relationship still struggling in my mind toward some
resolution I know it will never find. It has been fifteen years—the struggle
still goes on, and I imagine it will go on as long as I live.
Nothing is static. Nothing is “new,” and yet “knowing it for the first time”
as Eliot suggests, is the precious paradox that refutes the idea that we must
break our bonds with the dead in order to heal. Be it in mind or memory, we
the living stay connected to them the dead, and sound our connectedness in
language and in heart. The dead do not leave us. They are too powerful, too
influential, too meaningful to depart. They give us direction by institutionalizing our history and culture; they clarify our relationship to country and cause.
They immortalize our sentiments and visions in poetry, music, and art. The dead
come to inform us of tasks yet to be completed, of struggles to be continued,
of purposes to be enjoined, of lessons they have learned. We need the dead to
release us from our obligations, to open new potential, to give us belongingness
and strength to continue with our lives.
COMMUNICATING WITH THE DEAD / 129
Figure 2B. Tommy: Helping Children Cope (AIDS Project).
©Ward Street Studio Archives. b/w (1 of 3). Used with permission.
A richer grasp of such an eternal connectedness and of the solace in this
relatedness might help create a more sympathetic attitude toward the pain
of loneliness, toward active participation in the comforts of communication
with the dead, and toward understanding the driving psychological forces
that can dominate a person’s behavior when under the influence of an overwhelming preoccupation. Such a grasp might also be of great help to those
dying and to those losing another—for knowledge of connectedness can
serve to ease the pain for both. As the lore of the arts and humanities constantly inform us, it really is to our disadvantage to insist that dead is dead is a
logical imperative.
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130 / BERTMAN
Figure 2C. Tommy: Helping Children Cope (AIDS Project).
©Ward Street Studio Archives. b/w (3 of 3). Used with permission.
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New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace.
Merwin, W. S. (1993). Separation. In The second four books of poems (Port Townsend,
WA: Copper Canyon Press. Available at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetry
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Direct reprint requests to:
Sandra L. Bertman, LCSW, Ph.D., FT
Distinguished Professor of Thanatology and Arts
National Center for Death Education
Mount Ida College
159 Ward Street Studio
Newton, MA 02459
e-mail: [email protected]
132 / BERTMAN

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