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Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
courtesy Ken Ross

A Revolution in Dying

part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

In Tune with the Times

It's no accident that the hospice movement came along when it did, says author Eric Cassell. "The private life became public in the 1960s. That's extremely important to understand that, because that made a lot of this all possible."

Until the 1960s, death was sort of like sex - not a topic for polite discussion. But social turmoil was shaking the culture loose. The book, Everything You've Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) was published in 1969, the same year as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying.

"It was a time of protest," Wald says. "It was a time of protest against the Vietnam War ... but it was also the civil rights movement. Then there began to be talk about patients' rights." Wald, the daughter of New York intellectuals and a supporter of the civil rights movement, came to see better care for dying patients as a matter of human rights.

Besides being a time of protest, it was also, not incidentally, the middle of a spectacularly deadly century. World War II and the holocaust were still fresh in the memories of the hospice founders. Saunders says her religious awakening, which ultimately prompted her to choose care for the dying as her life's mission, followed the surrender of Japan in 1945.

The slaughter of World War II figures in Kübler-Ross's story, too.

Elisabeth Kübler grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Zurich. "My father absolutely was convinced that I had to work in his office and become his secretary," Kübler-Ross said recently. "Ugh. I'd be anything else, but not his secretary. And that gave me the energy to do what I needed to do and what I loved to do."

Elisabeth wanted to be a doctor. She found jobs in laboratories. At the end of World War II, she volunteered to go to Poland and work with sick and starving people. She saw the Nazis' death camp at Maidanek, an experience she later wrote about and described to friends. Seeing a place where "thousands and thousands of children" were systematically murdered had an enormous impact on the young Kübler-Ross, says Mwalimu Imara, a retired Episcopal priest and a friend of Kübler-Ross's since the 1960s. "I think her interest in death and dying started right there."


Next - Kübler-Ross in Chicago