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Seattle University


Death and Dying

Written by Mike Thee
June 18, 2012

In 2010 Bill Buckley, assistant professor in theology and religious studies, was about to embark on a book about death and dying. With an extensive background in comparative bioethics, Buckley was qualified enough to take up the subject, but experience told him public debate needed something more-North American and European discussions lacked something.  He wanted a clinician's perspective, and he knew just the person to ask: his colleague in the College of Nursing, Karen Feldt.

Feldt's decades of experience researching end-of-life issues made her the ideal collaborator, and while she was drawn to the project, her plate was extraordinarily full at the time. She was then serving as president of the Academic Assembly, participating in the revision of the university's Core Curriculum and handling her usual teaching and research responsibilities. "At first I told him 'No, I'm not going to write a book!'" remembers Feldt who holds the Premera Endowed Professorship in Nursing. When Buckley persisted, Feldt again tried throwing him off her trail, but Buckley wouldn't cave, and "after a fair amount of begging on his part," as Feldt puts it, she eventually acquiesced.

What ensued was a whirlwind selecting, writing and editing process that culminated in the interdisciplinary duo's 535-page book, Clashing Views in Death and Dying. Published in April 2012 as part of McGraw Hill's "Taking Sides" series, the text is built around 18 "fairly contentious questions" related to death and dying, Buckley says. Some of the topics addressed include assisted suicide, feeding tubes, advance directives, palliative care, compassion fatigue and funeral rituals.

For the 18 issues, Buckley and Feldt (left) combed through more than 600 peer-reviewed articles for two pieces-a pro and a con-that respond to the question at hand, such as "Should pain be alleviated if it hastens death?" (You can learn more about the book by visiting Clashing Views in Death and Dying.)

"What this book has is the best of the best in recent literature in the field of death and dying," says Buckley. The process of selecting 36 articles was labor-intensive in its own right, but that was just the half of it. The SU professors also wrote an introduction for each question and a conclusion identifying common ground for each issue-what Buckley calls the book's "golden kernel." Buckley and Feldt presented their sections in a unified voice; when their perspectives diverged, deference was given to the author who had more expertise on the given matter. "Only friends could do this," Buckley says of their collaboration.

Asked how Clashing Views in Death and Dying differs from other works on end-of-life issues, Buckley explains, "Our book is novel in that it merges bioethical, clinical, religious and philosophical perspectives." He repeatedly acknowledges his coauthor's "genius," explaining that "a lot of discourse on death and dying has been culturally anecdotal rather than evidence-based. Karen's expertise in outcomes-based medicine remains critical to shifting a wider cultural conversation from whether assisted suicide is ethical, for example, to how we can perform dying processes better.

"A public debate paralyzed by whether it is rational to cause death has forgotten wisdom now available from research based on clinical practices: dying well (enough) can reasonably improved as an art with practical attention to matters of depression, advanced directives and effective pain management.

The book is particularly notable in presenting end-of-life issues as matters of different kinds of justice.  Indeed, Buckley believes the text's most unique contribution is that it poses a very Jesuit question he puts this way: "How can good dying be the object of a just society and not merely fortune or privilege?"  

Buckley sees SU as an important catalyst in advancing and redefining the conversation on death and dying. He points to professors such as Dan Dombrowski (philosophy) and John Mitchell  (law) as contributing new thinking on end-of-life issues.

For her part, Feldt welcomed the opportunity to contribute a pragmatic perspective on death and dying that she hasn't seen so widely in existing literature. "(Many books previously written on the subject) have dealt with dying rituals or cultural approaches to dying," she says, "and ethics classes tend to deal with the nitty-gritty of death on more of an esoteric level." As both authors explain, Clashing Views in Death and Dying provides a more practical approach.

Nearly one fourth of the book-140 pages-contains detailed bibliographies about each topic; another 20 pages list individually vetted websites for each issue. A 90-page Instructor's Resource Guide contains additional sources and more than 150 multiple choice questions. The book and Instructor's Resources guide are available in online editions.