Professor Sandra Bertman founded the Medical Humanities Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and holds certificates in grief counseling and death education. This handbook outlines how she uses the visual and literary arts to "improve our professional abilities to deal with death and dying." Her premise is that the arts provide a valuable vehicle for exploring and making bearable the prospect and fact of death.

Bertman illustrates her presentation technique (Chapter 2) of juxtaposing dual images around six central themes, here abbreviated: the chosen death; death and afterlife; existential aloneness; loss of control, unmentionable feelings, grief; the land of the sick vs. the land of the well; the moment of death. The book offers dozens of paintings, sketches, and photographs (reproduced in black and white), as well as many literary excerpts. Classic works are represented (David's painting, The Death of Socrates; Michelangelo's sculpture, "Pieta"; Tolstoy's novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich) but there are many unusual representations as well--greeting card messages, epitaphs, cartoons.

In addition, some groups with whom she works (for example, medical students studying Gross Anatomy) have submitted their own drawings and commentary. These are shown in Chapter 3, along with written responses to a follow-up Death Attitude Questionnaire. Responses are from junior and senior high school students; college students; medical students; graduate nurses; hospice volunteers.

Chapter 4 gives suggestions for how to use images and texts and for how to approach discussions of loss and grief. The course syllabus for "Dissection, Dying, and Death," taught with Gross Anatomy, is appended, and there is an extensive bibliography.


Bertman demonstrates how important it is to ponder and discuss the human experience of terminal illness and death--important for patients, students, health professionals, and caregivers. She shows how literature and art can foster the awareness that leads to an individualized resolution of the difficult issues accompanying this final life event. The many visual and textual illustrations of attitudes and coping mechanisms (e.g. denial, blame, dishonesty, humor, anger, grief, love, caregiving) are wonderfully varied and give fresh perspectives on some classic works. Drawings and commentary by anatomy classes reveal the sensitivity that this methodology can elicit and encourage.

Comments from those who have participated in Bertman's classes and workshops provide evidence of how effective such an exploration can be. From a medical student: "'When the slide flashed on the screen . . . it made me realize that I hadn't had any space since my mother's death to allow myself to grieve . . . . " This is a valuable book.


A videotape of a dual image presentation by Professor Bertman, "Facing Death: Images and Insights from the Arts and Pop Culture," is available from the National Library of Medicine, Medicinal Muses series (1990).



Place Published

New York



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