People have always wrestled with questions like "Why am I here?" and perhaps the ultimate stumper, "What happens after I die?"

But American society has preferred to ignore the issue. During this century, death has largely been a hush-hush topic, something not brought up in polite company.Not anymore. From the silver screen to the chalkboard, death is suddenly a hot topic.

The most glaring, and disturbing, example came last November, when Jack Kevorkian killed a man on national television in an effort to spark a dialogue about euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In popular media, a small library's worth of books that promise to take the mystery out of the afterlife have been published this decade. Even Hollywood is weighing in. This year, three movies -- "City of Angels," "What Dreams May Come" and "Meet Joe Black" -- have portrayed Tinseltown's take on death and the afterlife, and more movies are in the works.

"Few issues are of more universal concern than death and dying," says pollster George Gallup Jr. "But the topic has been pretty much ignored until recently."

Gallup spoke last weekend to a group of medical professionals and clergy meeting in Boston at a conference on spirituality and healing in medicine. Offered by Harvard Medical School's Mind/Body Institute, the meeting is part of a small but growing trend among health professionals to care not only for a patient's body but also for inner needs -- including how to help people facing death.

Quest of the baby boomers

Is an emerging preoccupation with what happens next just premillennial jitters? Or does it signal a deeper cultural change?

Experts say the latter, and they attribute the growing debate in large part to the baby-boom generation. "Baby boomers are becoming very introspective" as they grow older, says Gerald Celente, author of the book, "Trends 2000." They're starting to ask themselves questions like, "Is there life after death?" and "Will I be ready?"

As the largest segment of America's population, boomers, in their quest for answers, are what's driving the spirituality movement. "Just as baby boomers are responsible for opening up avenues in alternative medicine, now they're doing the same with spirituality," says Celente. As a generation ever-skeptical of authority figures and institutions, they have also helped spur the boom of spiritual books and movies.

"When people get to age 40 or 50, they start asking profound questions," says Bob Marrone, psychology professor at California State University in Sacramento. What has changed, he says, is the venue -- partly a result of a fragmented U.S. society. Many people are not churchgoers and live far from family, so in their search for answers, "they buy the book, get the video, listen to the motivational speaker."

And they're doing it in droves. Interest in spirituality is at an all-time high in the United States, according to a new poll released at the Boston conference. Eight in 10 Americans say they want to grow spiritually, a 24 percent jump in four years. The rate is even higher among boomers.

'Remarkable' trend

"The growing importance of spirituality in this country is remarkable," says Gallup, whose firm conducted the survey of 1,200 adults. "We never see dramatic trends like these -- especially in areas like religion." The poll also shows that "Americans want to . . . reassert the spiritual element in dying," he says. "They want spiritual comfort in the form of prayer and a feeling of closeness to God."

Some in the medical profession are taking note of their patients' desires to have their spiritual, as well as physical, needs met. But doctors, trained to diagnose and treat disease, sometimes have trouble offering the spiritual comfort their patients crave, says Herbert Benson of the Mind/Body Institute. Part of the conference addressed how to alleviate what the study found were the two greatest fears: dying alone and feeling cut off from God's love.

"Patients' emotional and spiritual issues aren't being met" by traditional medicine, says Paul Brenner of the Jacob Perlow Hospice in New York, which employs two full-time chaplains.

In caring for those "faced with a verdict of death," the most important ingredient is love, said conference speaker Virginia S. Harris, chairwoman of the board of directors of The First Church of Christ, Scientist. "It is the sense of being loved by God . . . and one's relationship to that everpresent love, that alleviates the fear and anxiety of death."

She and other participants said patients can find hope by not seeing death as an ending. "Death is not something God wills," said the Rev. Joseph Driscoll. "It's not the end of the story."

While conference participants believed prayer could be a source of comfort, they were divided on whether it was effective in healing patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses. Rabbi Harold Kushner and others drew a distinction between a physical cure, which he did not believe was likely, and healing by making peace with one's family and oneself.

But Samuel Solivan, a Pentecostal leader, said physical healing was an integral part of his religion. He spoke of being healed of a blocked artery through prayer. With all respect to the medical profession, he said, "We will always seek a second opinion."