Near the Exit (Lori Erickson) -- A Review

NEAR THE EXIT: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper. By Lori Erickson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. 171 pages.

Maybe it's the fact I'm growing older or perhaps it's because as the pastor of a congregation that is on the older side, with a number of members who are over ninety, but questions of death and its meaning interest me. I'm fairly traditional in my views of death and its aftermath. For example, I tend toward embracing traditional understandings of the bodily resurrection (with a universalist bent). What fascinates me is the fact that despite differences of view regarding how we exit from this life, most religions and cultures have some sense that there is more to reality than what meets the eye. That is, we may envision death and its aftermath differently, but most cultures affirm the premise that there is something lying on the other side of the grave. For the most part, this gives us comfort, though not always (I know people who believe that come judgment day they will end up in hell).

It is with this background that I approached Lori Erickson's book Near the Exit. This exit referred to in the title of the book is death. Erickson writes here for those who live on the near side of the exit, whether they are getting close or not. She approaches this subject as an Episcopal deacon who is also a travel writer who specializes in spiritually related destinations. We might call these pilgrimage sites.

Her journey, which she invites us to join in, takes us to places where death is lifted up in some way. She starts the journey with a visit to the Day of the Dead observance in Chicago. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican observance occurring on the first two days of November (All Saints and All Souls Days). On these two days, she notes, the dead are believed to return for a visit. She took in this observance shortly after her mother entered a nursing home with dementia and four days prior to the death of her brother of a heart attack. What she discovered in this celebration that took place in the midst of her own melancholy was "a burst of brilliant color." She writes that she had been drawn to this event because she needed a "tutorial in death." This event served as an invitation to learn more about death (p. 3). Thus, the journey begins.

The book's subtitle is intriguing: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper. In her journey, she comes to understand that death is ever-present and not necessarily the enemy, though Paul would disagree. For her, the book "is about places that have helped me come to terms with death, sites that have made me view it not with dread but with acceptance, and even a measure of comfort and curiosity." (p. 5). As we progress through this journey, Erickson has in mind her mother's nearness to death and her brother's death. They are the key to her own journey toward acceptance and comfort, as she plumbs the depths of different visions of death and its aftermath.

The journey begins in Egypt, with the Great Pyramids of Giza. Of course, we know about the ancient Egyptian attempts at preserving the body through mummification in preparation for the journey into the afterlife. She writes that viewing the mummies led her to look for alternatives to keeping her body intact (she reveals her decision for cremation). From Giza, we move to nursing homes, which she calls "God's Waiting Room." Here she explores her mother's experiences with dementia and the nearness of death. In this chapter, she also reveals her visit to an Angel Reader who attempts to delve beyond the veil of death. Whether one believes in such things is for the reader to decide (and not the reviewer who tends to be skeptical of such things).

Chapter 3 takes us to New Zealand and the Maori veneration of their ancestors, which leads to the question of how we might honor the memories of our own ancestors. This chapter is followed by one titled "entering the shadowlands" that explores the hospice movement and the conversations we tend to avoid. Perhaps you're seeing a pattern here: travels leading to more personal conversations. The next journey takes us to Mexico and the understandings of death among the Aztecs and the Mayans (remembering that the Aztecs were known for their practice of human sacrifice). She shares that upon her visit to the Mayan people she was informed that their practices were more metaphorical than literal (we do have our ways of revising our histories, so maybe this is an example of that, but it is their story not mine).

Chapter 6 brings us closer to home. Titled "Crossing the Jordan," this is a chapter on funerals, something clergy have some experience with. The practical side of things moves us to another visit—the cremation grounds in Crestone, Colorado—a spot known as a pilgrimage site. We get to learn about the interest in this spot, and a Zen Buddhist who engages in cremation. Nursing homes, hospice, funerals, cremation, these are all aspects of our need to address the realities of death and its approach. This conversation leads us to a chapter on graveyards (cemeteries) and the way we use them and decorate them and visit them. This is another intriguing chapter, as different communities, even in the United States have different practices. As I ponder this chapter, I’m reminded of my surprise upon moving to Michigan the practice of grave blankets—blankets made of evergreen branches that cover graves, apparently to keep them warm during the coldness of winter.

Chapter 9 takes us first to the Necropolis of Rome— the tombs that lie beneath St. Peter's and the supposed location of Peter's bones (you must decide for yourself as to their validity). From there we travel to Assisi, where we hear about St. Francis, both in life and in death. We learn that Francis spoke of death as "Sister Death," whom he apparently welcomed. Her take on what she saw in Assisi is that for Francis the message is "have no fear" ... "Death is part of the family." (p. 156). This leads us to the epilogue, where we are invited into Erickson's encounters with her mother and her own thoughts about mortality and its meaning.

Near the Exit is an interesting book, though if you're looking for a traditional "Christian" perspective on death and dying, this might not be your book. She states upfront that though she is an Episcopal deacon she's not all that interested in theological precision. Her interests are more esoteric, and that is present throughout. She approaches this conversation from a personal perspective that is rooted in her vocation as a travel writer who specializes in spiritual destinations. She takes on a journey to places we may never have visited, but the journey could be enlightening (you be the judge). Oh, and yes, the book is engaging and approachable for all, for Erickson is a good storyteller.


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