When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son. By Samuel C. Heilman. University of California Press, 271 pp., $29.95.

Samuel C. Heilman begins his terrific book with a terrible cliché: In the United States "the denial of death and a desire to keep it from view are part of the basic outlook." This view, which is now standard fare in books on death and dying, is as false as it is tired.

As anyone mildly conversant with American popular culture can attest, Americans are obsessed with death, which is as ubiquitous in films and on television today as it was when Bambi's mother first expired on the silver screen in 1942. That academics miss this obvious fact may say something about their TV-viewing habits, but it likely says more about their desire to see themselves as intrepid explorers boldly going where no scholar has gone before--a want far more palpable than the supposed desire of Americans to deny death.