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Tom Owen-Towle ’63

Dying is Easy; Comedy is Hard

Finding light and laughter in the end

His lives are legion—minister, grandfather, parlor magician, guitarist—but his deaths?

“You only die once,” quips Tom Owen-Towle ’63, “so I want to exit laughing and singing, full of joy and gratitude.”

In his new book of poetic reflections, Growing All the Way to Our Grave: Conscious Aging & Mindful Dying, Owen-Towle urges everyone to accept the inevitable with a smile.

“For me, death is not a morbid topic,” Owen-Towle says. “It’s a life-enhancing topic.”

It doesn’t matter whether you agree, or whether you’ve dropped this magazine to retrieve your monocle from your Champagne flute: Death is on everyone’s syllabus … and there will be a pop quiz.



No matter how delicately broached, some topics are inevitably awkward.

You know, like a desire to dig your own grave.

“When we took this idea to our local town, you can imagine the phone calls,” laugh Sandy ’55 and Ruth Mary Cooper Lamb ’56, a retired doctor and a nutritionist. “They couldn’t remember anyone ever asking that.”

It certainly wasn’t a question Ruth herself could have imagined asking. She’d suffered for decades due to her fears 

of mortality after losing her religious faith at Swarthmore. (Nearly flunking chemistry had nothing to do with it, she swears.)

It was the nothingness that death seemed to promise that literally gave Ruth nightmares. And as for Sandy, director of the Boston Health Department during the height of the AIDS crisis, he’d witnessed death beyond measure and recently weathered a cancer scare of his own.

What helped them see death in a new light was retiring to Walden-esque solitude on a remote 167-acre Adirondack property fittingly named Journey’s End. Immersed in the rhythms of nature’s endless renewals and transformations, the environmental activists had an unexpected epiphany when their cat, Malta, fell prey to a great horned owl.

Despite the loss of their orange tabby, they realized Malta’s death was part of the circle of life all around them in the valley: not an ending, but a beginning.

“It seems miraculous the way she traded claws and switching tail for wings and feathers,” Ruth wrote in her book At the End of the Road. “In fact, I find myself wondering, from time to time, who or what I will turn into.”

Whatever that may be, what’s most important to Ruth and Sandy is for their own exits to be environmentally graceful. They want their remains to easily return to the earth sans embalming chemicals or wood-and-metal coffins.

And so, after soothing those aforementioned surprised town officials, they began making preparations for their eventual green burials. The couple bought cardboard caskets, which rest beneath their bed, and discussed their wishes with family members and friends.

“Our kids helped us dig our graves, which gave us the opportunity to raise the issue of death with them, and what that means,” Sandy says. “To us, it means that we just change our form, and we become part of the life of the valley.”

Measuring about 3-and-a-half feet deep and covered with boards to keep them from falling in, the graves lie head to head not too far from the resting place of another of their beloved pets—Ward, a stray beagle mix who adopted them.

From the moment they first dug their shovels into the soil, the Lambs felt happy and at peace with their plots and plans.

“The ground here is so rocky that early settlers to this valley actually left to farm elsewhere,” Ruth says. “Rocks were the terrible bane of our garden, too, but the place where we dug our graves amazingly didn’t have any. It seems promising for what we’re intending to plant.”



To preserve and enhance life and vitality, doctors dance a constant duet with death. In their own way, so do medical clowns. (Just be careful which one’s writing your prescriptions.)

As both, medical student and circus artist Jacqueline Morgen Nager ’13 recently completed a yearlong Albert Schweitzer Fellowship to help establish a medical clowning program at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center.

“When I describe what medical clowning is,” she says, “I have to first say what it isn’t: overwhelming face paint, floppy shoes, a one-way act. It should never feel intrusive.”

What it is: a trained professional working in tandem with the medical team to use the skills inherent to clowning—empathy, creativity, humanity, humor—to have comforting interactions with the patients. Whether they’re juggling, singing a song, or just lending a sympathetic ear, medical clowns can bring levity, reassurance, and empowerment to what can be a frightening, lonely experience.

“Medical clowns live in this decidedly present tense, with no past and no future. That can be particularly effective when dealing with dying patients who get used to being treated very gingerly,” Nager says. “In the best ways, a medical clown can catch someone off guard.”

Unlike doctors and nurses, who are trained to be frank and honest in end-of-life conversations—“We are taught to use the words ‘die’ and ‘death,’ instead of tiptoeing around with softer terms like ‘pass away,’” Nager notes—clowns have permission to show emotion, whimsy, or humor to commiserate or quell concerns even physicians share.

“In my limited clinical experience so far, I have had a few patients die,” Nager says. “In these experiences, I have noticed myself developing a professional self aside from my personal self; the attitude I take as a health-care provider allows me to discuss death evenly and rationally, but outside the hospital, I have my own fears and discomfort about death and dying.” 

As she continues to figure out what sort of physician, clown, and human she’ll be, Nager sees a golden opportunity for doctors, nurses, and medical clowns to learn from one another and to work together to improve patients’ health and happiness.

After all, compassion and perspective—with or without a rubber chicken—are key for any medical professional who wants to comfort ... especially when they cannot cure.

“When I have a patient who’s dying, I want to be able to go back to the team and say, ‘This is what their wishes are,’ ‘This is the family who’s in the room with them,’ ‘Here’s what I know about this person.’ The more I’ve connected with a patient, the better an advocate I can be,” Nager says. “Medicine is really a team effort, and medical clowns should be part of that team.”



Taking a lighthearted, clear-eyed view of death is reassuring, even if the opposite seems true, says Tom Owen-Towle ’63. After all, it’s false comfort to ignore death like the proverbial elephant in the room. (Apologies, of course, to those who meet death via an elephant in the room.)

“A lot of people want to cheat or defeat death—not me,” he says. “Without death, life would be less purposeful and precious.”

Turning 77 this year—“my home stretch,” the minister says with a smile—Owen-Towle teaches workshops to help others see death as a complement to life; the shadow that makes the sun even more spectacular. Rather than becoming tongue-tied or terrified in the face of mortality, he urges attendees to stay curious and playful.

“I look at it as staying awake all the way to the grave,” he says. “Yes, there’s sadness in dying, but there can also be joy, and it’s even more beautiful when woven fine through the sorrow.”

As part of his professional “re-firement,” Owen-Towle has built many relationships with nursing home patients and caregivers, and he frequently visits them to provide spiritual counsel and—more importantly—crack a joke or two.

“A lot of times when I see people on their deathbed, they don’t want me to say a prayer or discuss heavy, important life lessons—they just want to laugh and tell jokes and have jokes told about them,” he says. “Those people are to be emulated—to me, mixing the poignant and playful is about as enlightened as it gets.”

And so his advice is simple.

Think about death. Talk about death. Joke about death. Cry about death. Come to terms with death. But do so now and do so to live—to get past the fear and awkwardness to find love and laughter.

Make sure your last wishes are known, discussed, formalized, and constantly updated. Say all the things you want to say to your loved ones. Write your own epitaph and make whatever changes you need to so that you’re happy with it.

And take comfort in the fact that, no matter how or when you embark on that ultimate journey, you’re not alone.

When he pictures his own eventual send-off, Owen-Towle thinks back to when he was a shy, scared teenager from the West Coast about to depart for another great unknown.

“When I left for Swarthmore, my parents put me on a train with everything I owned in a trunk and said: ‘We can’t come along, but we’ll still be with you. We send you forth with love,’” he says. “That seems to me an excellent metaphor for what should happen when we die.”