It is when one first sees the horizon as an end that one first begins to see...Ends are the hardest things in the world to see--precisely because they aren't things, they are the ends of things. And yet they are wonderful. What would life be without them!...if we didn't die there would be no works--not works of art certainly, the only ones that count. ...Death is the perspective of every great picture ever painted and the underbeat of every measurable poem...

--Archibald MacLeish

Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.
--Longfellow, Elegaic Verse

Have you noticed how much endism seems to be in the air?  Its variations feature such topics as millennialism, divorce, the right-to-die and "death-with-dignity" movements, technology's accelerations of obsolescence, viewerships of final episodes of popular television shows (what, the finale of Friends only attracted 51.1 million?!  Cheers attracted 80.4 million and Seinfield 76.2.) the disappearance of the WW II generation from society's stages, concerns over extinctions--not only of animal species but also of ecosystems, languages, and even of entire cultural orders.  Harper's Index of April 1999 reported that half of Americans believe some manmade disaster will destroy civilization in the twenty-first century.  The theme of endings echo through Richard Corliss's obituary for Jack Lemmon ("Clown Prince," Time, July 9, 2001).  In developing a last-of-a-kind theme in his biographical eulogy, Corliss described Lemmon's performances as "the sad-clown face of America at the twilight of its imperial reign," of  "men drowning in flop sweat and flailing magnificently as they go down for the last time."  He argued that Lemmon "kept upper-middle-class comedy alive long past its prime."   

Scattered throughout this website are such ending topics as:

Such connections demand further development. Although as a society we seem to give more attention to beginnings (e.g., bar mitzvahs, marriages, inaugurals, baby showers, college matriculations, and the ritual laying of the first cornerstone of a new building; see also the Library of Congress's "Beginnings" exhibit)), it is in our ritual ways of bringing closure and conclusion to things where key cultural values are revealed. However, the problem of our times is the apparent lack of cultural consensus over exactly how endings --whether from work, the family, or from life itself--should be ideally conducted, perhaps accounting for the expanding political-legal involvements in status terminations. We do know that "good" endings require personal control and the minimization of degradation. As a consequence, we're witnessing the emergence of our own Ars Moriendi, the death awareness movement (which includes the right-to-die and hospice movements as well as the public's receptivity to Kübler-Ross's (1969) stages of the death process simultaneously with increased sensitivities toward political lame-duckism, the proliferation of divorce experts, and the debates over mandatory retirement.


I wanted a perfect ending ... Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.
--Gilda Radner

In 1988, a dying retired Alabama bus driver admitted to authorities his involvement in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black girls. Numerous are such stories of how those at life's end clear their consciences, tell the truth, and make their peace with survivors-to-be. The prospect of imminent death has a way of precipitating out life's essences from the trivialities of everyday life. Lance Morrow once noted how

[t]here was a time when the deathbed was kind of proscenium, from which the personage could issue one last dramatic utterance, full of the compacted significance of his life. Last words were to sound as if all of the individual's earthly time had been sharpened to that point: he could now etch the grand summation ("A Dying Art: The Classy Exit Line," Time [January 16]:76).

Click here for NPR's "This Life" program "Last Words" (aired Oct. 23, 1998) for readings of individuals' final statements before death.


It was the fast-approaching conclusion of his administration that motivated Bush to compromise in order to achieve an A-pact with the Russians. With only three weeks left in his tenure, Bush and Yeltson signed the treaty. It was the existence of this deadline that prompted the President to establish the way that he would be historically remembered. Such, in part, is the power of a deadline: they force priorities to be made, goals to be accomplished, and even strategies for transcendence to be enacted.

Webster's Dictionary defines the word "deadline" as "a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes only at the risk of being instantly shot." Interestingly, over the past century or so the word has shifted in general parlance from meaning a spatial threat to a temporal threat. Deadlines demand not only the culmination of social projects but, like the life reviews of those on their deathbeds or students' crammings for final examinations, they also demand summative reflections as to the net meaning of the entire social enterprise.


There may well be a human need for closure, a psychic need arising out of our needs for order and meaningfulness. As George Herbert Mead ("The Nature of Aesthetic Experience," International Journal of Ethics, XXXVI, 1926.) and later Hugh Duncan (Communication and the Social Order, 1962) observed, endings distinguish the essence of aesthetic experience from all other acts through their power "to capture the enjoyment that belongs to the consummation, the outcome, of an undertaking and to give to the implements, the objects that are instrumental in the undertaking, and to the acts that compose it something of the joy and satisfaction that suffuse its successful accomplishment" (Mead, 1926:384). Only in conclusions are the connections between means and ends realized, the "clash of interests and impulses resolved" (Duncan, p. 82), and when "we contemplate, and abide, and rest in our presentations" (Mead, p. 385). This aesthetic potential is not simply a province of the arts but exists as well in the culmination of role biographies.

One wonders to what extent the contemporary "problem" of death is a function of the fact that death is perceived merely to mean the end, the cessation of all (finis, rather than as a consummation and completion, or telos). Given the frequency which death is the framing metaphor by which social endings are generally understood, the question is far from being merely academic.

Return to Times of Our Lives Index Page