Saturday, June 8, 2013

Books on Last Things

Skull on black; taken by Benjamin Miller; source: I came across an unusual investment vehicle. This was the Pauze Tombstone Fund which invested in cemeteries, funeral services and the like. It actually sounded like a good idea: everyone sooner or later would need of these services and with the size of the population nowadays and the reasonably expected bump by the baby boomers the sector would surely thrive. However, the fund went under not long after, sporting some of the worst performances in the investment universe. After its demise, it was not altogether gone, as it left me with an itch to know more on final matters. This was cured by a couple of books.

The first, and most notable is Stiff by Mary Roach.  In this book she looks at the adventures a human body can go through after its last breath, from old-fashioned decomposition to cannibalism. She goes about her way with a healthy curiosity of how things work out after expiration by approaching different experts. She also takes some detours to take a look at how things used to be, namely body snatching and reanimators, and recent developments on final disposal.  Probably the best aspect of her treatment is that she isn't ghoulish about anything, except perhaps her wish for her brain's final resting place, which makes this book readable to all but the squeamish.

A good companion to Stiff is Wilkin's Death: A History of Man's Obsessions and Fears (AKA The Bedside Book of Death). Although this one still has a high content of cadaver issues, this one focuses more on the cultural aspects (western mainly) of death and the ways man has sought to cope with posthumous fears. Premature burials, mummification, the incorruptible, famous bodies, funerary monuments and more are to be found here. Unlike Stiff, which has a more journalistic slant, DaH, is more anecdotal on its cases and stories, and unavoidably a bit more gruesome. It also has lots of of BnW illustrations.  Wilkins is a trained psychiatrist.

While Roach shows that death isn't the end, at least for human cadavers, Wilkins adds that so is the case for man's fears about it.

If you too have a healthy curiosity, these two fit the bill. If you want even more, there are these (which I've not read):
  • Working Stiff by Judy Melinek
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
  • Mortuary Confidential: Undertakers Spill the Dirt by Kenneth McKenzie
  • Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid  also McKenzie
  • Down Among Dead Men by Michelle Williams


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