The idea that the dying might have something to teach the living seems self-evident. After all, as the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross put it, in a 1969 profile in LIFE Magazine, who better to offer instruction on “the ultimate human crisis” than those in the midst of it?
“When I wanted to know what it was like to be schizophrenic,” Dr. Kübler-Ross told TIME earlier the same year, “I spent a lot of time with schizophrenics. Why not do the same thing? We will sit together with dying patients and ask them to be our teachers.”
And yet the medical community reacted as though she’d suggested interviewing ghosts about the afterlife (which, to some degree, she later did). The institutional hush surrounding terminal illness was so deeply rooted by the 1960s that Kübler-Ross’s suggestion came as a shocking breach of protocol.
“The reaction of physicians ranged from annoyance to…
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