There is, indeed, a final frontier beyond “Star Trek,” and if “Death” doesn’t quite complete the impossible expedition of crossing over to the other side and managing to return to tell the tale, it accomplishes something far more important and necessary. It removes the sting from a difficult subject as it examines death as a fact of life.
It would have been so easy for this four-part PBS series (episodes 3 and 4 air Oct. 5, 9-11 p.m.) to flirt with the maudlin or descend into the macabre, but Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer-host Greg Palmer, even in a Halloween mask, simply plays it straight. Witty, acerbic, honest and brave, his non-traditionally telegenic balding, overweight, genial presence holds this marvelous journey together, infusing it with intelligence, decency, courage and, well, life.
Under his guidance, death — its meanings and rituals — becomes fascinating. For him, opening a window on the way we perceive death is opening a window on the way we perceive the road to it. Equivocation around the former tends to imply a hesitancy about the latter.
The first episode examines the way different cultures approach and prepare for the inevitable. The Hindus embrace it. Americans repel it as we strain toward some kind of cultural catharsis by relishing the deaths of so many others on film and television. The Ashanti of Africa build coffins in the shapes of animals or Mercedes Benzes. Mexicans try to reduce death to a commonplace with skeletal statuary, then steep themselves in its symbolism one night a year.
The most memorable moments in the first hour are not the exotic images along the banks of the Ganges or the eeriness of a Purepechan Indian ritual on the Night of the Dead, but the ease with which a class of American fourth graders can openly talk about something the majority of their elders would rather avoid. In one exercise, their teacher asks them to make their own gravestones and epitaphs; the results are deeply moving in their celebration of honesty over artifice.
The second episode deals with our search for the good death and how we try both to forestall and control it. There’s nothing new to Palmer’s investigation of cryonics or hospices or a young girl battling leukemia or oldsters dunking in their literal Fountain of Youth in Florida. Nor is there anything extraordinary in his look at painful deaths through violence or lingering disease or the anonymity of a burial in potter’s field.
Which is exactly the point Palmer makes so clear in his lyrical writing and the pictures that accompany it: The only thing extraordinary about death is the fear of death. Of course, it’s better to die heroically than meaninglessly, but — and every frame of this is a reminder — it’s even better to live heroically than meaninglessly. And that ethos is what makes “Death” more of a festival than a funeral.