Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Three obit books, reviewed

The great thing about books regarding death and dying is that most are so chipper!

There is a natural and universal tendency to overcompensate for treating such a grim subject by being funny about it. Many writers adopt a sardonic approach to grief and personal dissolution; don’t knock it, it does help to jolly one through the morbid details. As someone who’s been studying and reporting on death and dying for a decade, I have thumbed titles from The Dead Beat to Rest in Pieces and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Here’s a quick look at some titles of note:

Life After Death: The Art of the Obituary
Nigel Starck
Melbourne University Press

A lovely and comprehensive, thought-provoking survey of printed obituaries that gives this journalistic specialty its due. No one had really given thought to the cultural content and context of obits before, and the writer’s compelling style aptly illuminate his thoughts. It defines the genre, delineates it history and changing emphases, and Starck discusses how obituaries convey a given society’s values. After identifying the obituary’s golden age in the 1980s, the author goes on discuss who gets one, relates a few cautionary tales about the disasters of error and overlooked facts, and even provides an impromptu tutorial.

Advice for Future Corpses and Those Who Love Them: A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying
Sallie Tisdale

Some common-sense talk about the end of life. Tisdale is a former nurse and a Buddhist; both these influences combine to make Advice a good bedside book for those prepared to face facts. Though she somewhat decries her Buddhist perspective, it thoroughly informs everything in the book, which is fine. Tisdale walks us through the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the end of life, step by step in clear and coherent detail. It is overwritten in parts; there are passages where she is simply laboring too hard, being too obvious — but it’s better that than the opposite.

The best part of the book is the back, with its practical checklists and discussions of everything from making a death plan to advance directives, organ and tissue donation, and assisted death. How many ways are there to dispose of one’s body? We hear about it all, including mycocremation, alkaline hydrolysis, promession (freeze-drying), cadaver donation, and even plastination (for those of you who might want to be on display posthumously, perhaps in the foyer).

Obituaries in American Culture
Janice Hume
University Press of Mississippi

Exhaustive research led Hume to a remarkable set of observations about American character as expressed through obituaries. A wonderful blend of history, sociology, and cultural anthropology, it makes the case that these commemorative summaries have much to teach us about our nature and our aspirations.

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