Editor’s Note: Passing knowledge across generations means facing death together

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Illustration by Robert Meganck. Illustration by Robert Meganck.

There are a number of ways to indicate that the population is aging, but perhaps the most relevant is that the U.S. Census Bureau projects the dependency ratio —the number of people age 65 and older for every 100 people of traditional working age—will go from 22 in 2010 to 35 in 2030. In simplest terms, the Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age, which means their parents have reached or are reaching the ends of their lives.

We tend to think of generational transitions in terms of coming of age. There’s not much mythology around passing the professional baton, grieving for your mother, or confronting mortality. Maybe it’s another legacy of the Summer of Love: We are frozen in a moment of cultural conflict when an old-fashioned generation shaped by Depression, war, professional duty, and parochial responsibility watched its children grasp at the promise of social, geographic, and sexual freedom. Maybe we are still grasping at that promise. The point is that the only constant with generational transitions is that they keep happening all the way through life and they always involve parents and children.

After living with the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I came away believing that in spite of the very miserable condition of their culture, they had managed to preserve through an onslaught of poverty, mismanagement, and genocide the idea of generational wisdom. The spiritual leaders always talked about the seven generations, a concept that essentially means each age cohort travels in a bubble through time, keeping the history of three past generations and planning for the future of three future generations. There is a symmetry to that notion, but it’s conceptual. More concretely, the old people are still revered there. They eat first, speak last, and sit in front. They are still counted on to raise the grandchildren and to make large decisions. I also admired the way the Lakota bury their dead. I remember, in particular, Edgar Fire Thunder’s funeral at the American Horse School. The family took turns telling stories about his life and feeding the people for days in front of an open casket. It’s an exhausting ritual, but one that initiates real grieving. Better than hopping on a plane for a quick funeral and then going your separate ways to process the pain.

This week’s cover story takes a look at what it means to die well. We are a culture of progress and change, but those narratives are specific to each generation. Our connection across generations still exists in relation to eternal truths, both intrinsic and existential. We depend on each other and compete with one another. We love and hurt, hurt and love. And then, in the end, we die.

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