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Learning to Face Mortality with 'Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death'
March 26, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

You need to be in the right mood to watch Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Produced by the well-respected Helen Whitney, Into the Night takes its title from the Dylan Thomas poem about death that urges readers, “Do not go gently into that good night.”

Gabriel Byrne reads this passage to kick off the show. It’s appropriately forceful and definitely gets your attention, after which Whitney moves through a range of death-related segments in which some of the participants take Thomas’s advice and some do not.

The broader purpose of the documentary is to examine death as a fact of life, one of its few absolute inevitabilities and therefore its great leveler.

No one, no matter how rich, famous or successful, is going to outrun this one.

Naturally enough, there are those who try. Max More, a futurist and cryonicist, professes optimism that technology will eventually find a way to preserve failed bodies until further technology can find a way to heal them.

More’s faith doesn’t provide much short-term hope for two subjects who know they are close to their own deaths. So they provide some of their own.

Jeffrey Pichler, a Mayo Clinic surgeon, has battled prostate cancer for a dozen years. He succeeded in delaying death, but not thwarting it, leading him to explain that after a career dealing with the most tangible physical aspects of life, what has sustained him more powerfully are the intangibles like friendship and human connections.

Phyllis Tickle is among the measurable percentage of people who describe having near-death experiences where they felt themselves being transported out of this life before inexplicably being brought back.

Tickle says what others have said before, that there is a sense of peace and acceptance in that moment. As death conversation goes, it doesn’t get much more comforting than that.

That’s important because, given the subject of Into the Night, most people aren’t going to view the whole discussion as very buoyant.   

Most people might view it more like The Rev. Vernal Harris (right), a Baptist minister who admits that after the death of his two young sons he questioned his own faith. What sort of God, he asks, would make this part of His plan?

Eventually, he says, God answered his questions, and he came back to the fold.

The subtext in many of the interviews here is that the best way to counterbalance the specter of death is to appreciate life, which can be anything from friends and family to nature or even the memory and spirit of those who died before.

Into the Night isn’t a program everyone’s going to want to watch. It’s valuable anyway, because this is a game in which everyone’s number will eventually be called.

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I’m fighting triple negative breast cancer. I just finished watching - what a timely and beautiful program this was. How can I view it again, this time with my mum. She’s 84, living with me, and is also fighting incurable bone and liver cancer, metastases from her breast cancer 5 years ago. We need to see this documentary again. We’re in Ontario. Help and suggestions welcome!
Mar 27, 2018   |  Reply
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