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While much has been written in recent years on death and dying, there has been little treatment of how people cope with death in the absence of religious belief, and virtually no examination of the potential political repercussions of a wider acceptance of mortality in American society. Alfred Killilea’s strikingly original book revolves around a central irony: though the subject of death has been largely shunned in American culture lest it rob life of meaning and contentment, confronting death may be crucial to enable us as individuals and as a society to affirm life, even to survive, in this nuclear age.

Killilea argues that the denial of death has fostered a disavowal of limits in general, and that a greater awareness of our mortality would provide a much needed catalyst for change in our political response to narcissism and nuclearism. He traces how, from John Locke to the present, a politics and an economics based on growth for the sake of growth have required an avoidance of human vulnerability. Our confrontation with mortality, Killilea argues, would goad us to question our roles as mere acquirers and to take more seriously the need for equality and community in our society.

In charting how we can come to terms with death and how profoundly our attitudes toward death affect our attitudes toward politics, Killilea vides lucid and authoritative commentaries on such provocative thinkers as Earnest Becker, Robert Jay Lifton, Michael Novak, Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, and Jonathan Schell. Scholars in many fields as well as interested lay readers will find the treatment of these issues and thinkers compelling. This easily accessible book is an urgent reminder that the most valuable spur to the examined life extolled by Socrates is the knowledge that we will die.

Alfred G. Killilea is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island.

"The most common experience in life, death is also the most elusive and difficult subject ever to confront the human mind. Alfred Killilea steers clear of myths and shibboleths and shows that the greatest gift possessed by human beings—the ability to think analytically and creatively—can be applied to the one confrontation that no one can avoid."—Norman Cousins

"The 'star wars' missile defense concept is part of the human fantasy that life can somehow be made absolutely safe; were we individually to accept our deaths, we might collectively save the planet. That is only one of the provocative insights in Killilea's splendid book."—William Sloane Coffin

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Death, Life course, Social values


Family, Life Course, and Society

The Politics of Being Mortal
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