A few months ago I came across the obituary for one of my professors, a man who with his incredible charm and piercing intelligence made quite an impression on me. On impulse I started typing an entry into the on line memorial guest book. It evolved into a heartfelt tribute to a man I knew for only a brief period, a long time ago. Upon reading the entry, Dr. Kastenbaum’s wife, Beatrice contracted me and asked me to speak at her husband’s Celebration of Life at Arizona State University. I did. This is what I wrote, and what I read to the assembled guests.
Guest Book Entry in Memoriam Dr. Robert Kastenbaum August 2014
I was a student of Dr. Kastenbaum, who almost wasn’t. It was just by chance that at the end of my Master’s program, a few credits short of graduating, I stumbled upon his class; Death, Dying and Society. I thought; “How bad could it be?”
It turned out to be one of the most enriching and enjoyable experiences of my graduate studies. Dr. Kastenbaum was a captivating instructor. From the moment he started lecturing he drew me in and opened my mind to thoughts and concepts that had never before occurred to me. He had a way of illuminating dark areas so often avoided and infusing taboo topics with a breathless excitement. It was his creative curiosity and innovativeness that was so intriguing, and for those of us who loved that class, his thoughts and insights have stayed with us for a lifetime.
Kastenbaum had an extraordinary approach to teaching, often very experiential. During one of the classes he invited us to close our eyes and bring to mind three people we loved. In a deep voice he instructed; “Imagine a spotlight, representing life, shining down brightly on each of these individuals.” He paused to let the class conjure up that image. “Now pick one…” Another pause.
“Dim the light, and slowly allow that person….. to be engulfed in darkness.”
Initially I visualized my husband’s parents, who had all but adopted me and to whom I felt close. They were great people, and I loved them. It was sad to see each of them fade away, but not terribly painful. However, for the third and final loved one I reluctantly chose, I took the emotional risk Kastenbaum was going for. I pictured my then five year old son, Michael.
Turning out the lights on my father-in-law, and then on my mother-in-law had been sad, not wrenching. But when it came to dimming the light of life on my little boy I felt the full force of that lesson. I could not bring myself to do it, my mind careened away from that thought, that image. The sensations engendered by the imagined fading of my son’s light where overwhelming and terrifying. With that brief exercise, Dr. Kastenbaum taught me what grief was; how enormous, black and heavy it is, and how powerless we all are in the face of it.
For a man who spent much of his academic life immersed in the study of death and dying Robert Kastenbaum really knew how to live. He was interested in so many things, and in people of all ages. He had a deep appreciation for the last phase of life, and was one of the pioneers in the field of Gerontology. Legendary in his radical approaches to working with the elderly he spearheaded an ‘Early Bird Special Happy Hour’; rolling carts down nursing home corridors dispensing red and white wine. His theory that sparked that little experiment bore out. What had seemed like dementia in some of these patients was in fact a behavioral response to boredom and monotony. He brought something novel and fun into their lives, and reveled in their enthusiastic response.
For my term paper I tackled a detailed analysis of the Tantric Buddhist afterlife concepts of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a long time fascination of mine. Kastenbaum loved it. He called me into his office and we discussed that book for hours. That’s when I really saw the expanse of his curiosity and joy in intellectual discovery. As we talked I felt elevated, thrilled to realize that we were experiencing a mutual conveyance of knowledge. He opened himself up to learning something from me, a lowly grad student. That was an intense and delightful afternoon.
Before this wonderful accident of wandering into Dr. Kastenbaum’s class I was steeped in a common form of death denial; I had somehow convinced myself that it only happened to very old people, and in all likelihood would never happen to me. Dr. Kastenbaum illuminated the fact that death could come at anytime throughout the lifespan; a moment after a newborn’s first breath, during adolescence to a teenager speeding down a freeway, or to a young woman while giving birth. This basic, irrefutable truth never seemed to frighten or disturb him. He embraced Thanotology; the study of death and dying, as a great intellectual challenge. For Dr. Kastenbaum the fact that we all die made life vividly real and valuable, and that knowledge lent a shimmering intensity to everything he said and did.
Robert Kastenbaum was a kind, creative, funny, brilliant man. I was fortunate to have met him, to have had the joy of reading his books and attending his class and listening to his lectures. I was saddened to hear of his passing, but in thinking back over his long life of so many accomplishments, and remembering his fascination with all aspects of life, including death, all I can say is;
“Dr. K., you are on your way, you have embarked on your most glorious adventure”.
August 2, 2013