How to read about death without crying

What happens to our physical remains when we die? How does nature take its course – and how is that affected by our choices about how we are treated after death?

What happens to our physical remains when we die? How does nature take its course – and how is that affected by our choices about how we are treated after death?

The answer to the first question, in many ways, is universal: physical forces such as heat, moisture and decay act on the dead in ways that are well understood. For many of us, however, the process is unfamiliar. Decomposition is rarely the stuff of polite conversation.

The answer to the second is broad and very varied, influenced by our belief systems, personal wishes, and, sometimes, the laws and regulations in the place where we die.

Again, though, our ability to make choices about our remains can be hampered by a lack of knowledge. Answers to questions seemingly as simple as ‘what happens during cremation?’ and ‘what is embalming?’ can be tricky to find. Yet they may play a vital role in important choices about how we want our death to impact family, friends, community and the environment.

One of the big barriers to finding out about these sort of things – apart from the taboos of dinner party chat – is that the very thought of investigating death and funeral practices feels like an invitation to depression.

Thankfully, however, there are at least a handful of books written by skilled and compassionate authors about death and funerals. They are respectful but also fascinating and sometimes, believe it or not, even funny. Here are some examples.

Smoke gets in your eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

In her mid-twenties medieval scholar Caitlin Doughty took a job in her local crematorium. In this memoir she describes in vivid detail how she came to learn the mechanics of the process, its history, and how it is practised around the world. In doing so, she demystifies funerals and makes a gentle argument for change in the ways that we deal with and discuss death.

Doughty, now a professional undertaker, is a leading light in the field known as ‘Death World’ writing. Also recommended is her book From Here to Eternity: travelling the world to find a good death

All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell

Another noted Death World writer, Australian-born, UK-resident Hayley Campbell’s book is utterly remarkable. In each chapter she interviews a person whose life is tied up with death: not just a funeral director and an embalmer, but a crime scene cleaner, a homicide detective, a maker of death masks, and even a US executioner. Line by line she draws out a deep and complex examination of attitudes to dealing with the dead, including her own starkly honest reaction. The book is compelling and gentle, generating laughter and tears, sometimes at the same time.

Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers, by Mary Roach

Have you ever thought about donating your body to science, or wondered if your remains could somehow be put to good use for the benefit of humanity? If so, this book is for you. Mary Roach is a well-known American science writer. In Stiff she explores the many ways human remains have been used in research. She looks at how they can be used to teach surgery, to become insect fodder on ‘body farms’, and to provide models for weapons testing. She also looks at some very strange historical practices, including using the dead as crash test dummies or in ‘crucifixion studies. Roach’s command of detail is very impressive. Her sense of humour is always on display, but frequently dark.

Death: a graveside companion, edited by Joanna Ebenstein

This hefty volume contains a foreword by UK author Will Self and many short essays on topics including mythology, poetry, memorials, funeral practices and theatre. Arguably, though, its greatest value is visual. Editor Joanna Ebenstein has gathered more than 1000 amazing illustrations, paintings and photographs, spanning centuries and continents. They reflect how different cultures depict death and the afterlife. Some are deeply moving, a few rather gruesome, but most are simply fascinating.

Why is this important? Because death has been depicted as frightening, comic, threatening, consoling or just weird. This book works like a mirror. It invites us to reflect on how we, too, think about the end of life and what we would like to happen next.

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