Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Current Reads: Cadavers, Crypts and the Afterlife

My friend Melissa is one of those people who, rather than telling you how supportive she is about decisions you've made, shows you by showering you in gifts relevant to said decisions. The decision I'm referring to would be my choice to make a living in the industry of death, and these books were gifts from Melissa for my birthday last week. Being the ridiculously indecisive person that I am, I couldn't choose which to pick up first so I'm currently reading all of them simultaneously.


First up we have The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, which is essentially part autobiography/part philosophical rambling about death through the eyes of a small town funeral director. It covers everything from late night removals and pre-arrangements to the author's experience embalming his own father, and it's a fascinating -- though rather depressing -- read. While the prose in this one is fantastic (Lynch has also published a number of poetry books), I've had a hard time reading this one because it's just so damn gloomy. I know, you're probably thinking "Well obviously, Bronwyn, it's a book about death" and wondering how on earth I plan on working amongst the dead 365 days a year if a silly book had me feeling down in the dumps. The best way I can explain it is Lynch is a little bit too honest at times. Some of the thoughts he puts forth are things I think we all think from time to time, but they're the sort of things we only let cross our minds for a finger-snap's length of time before we force ourselves to imagine, puppies, kittens and other cuddly, happy things.



Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is a book I'm pretty sure every current and/or aspiring funeral director has read in his or her lifetime. Roach discusses over 2,000 years worth of shit corpses have been put through in the name of science, including being tested in guillotines and riding in space shuttles. She attempts to tackle it with a twinge of humor, which may seem out of place to some but keeps it from reading like a mortuary science textbook you'd be assigned in Funeral Service 101. Her descriptions are also a bit gory at times, so I don't recommend this one for the faint of heart or the easily offended. 




Another book by Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife is perhaps one of the most interesting (to me at least) books on this list, and the title pretty much tells you exactly what it's about. In Roach's own words, it's "a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith." As an atheist who's on the fence about whether we go to some other realm, come back as insects or simply cease to exist when we die, I'm really enjoying the information and theories presented in this book. Again, it has Roach's trademark wit and humor which rubs a lot of people the wrong way (just take a five second peek at her reviews on Amazon and you'll see what I mean) but being an incredibly politically incorrect person myself, I've taken little issue with this.



Melissa picked out Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial by Penny Colman for me because she thought it looked like it would make an excellent coffee table book, and while it's certainly by no means an all encompassing or comprehensive history of burial practices and rituals, it's been a good read nonetheless. It discusses various burial rites from different cultures around the world, and I think it's a great starter book for people who are just beginning to gain interest in death culture (yeah, that's a thing) and history.



I'm always on the hunt for new books, and I enjoy reading a wide variety of genres covering many different subjects. I also love, love, love receiving recommendations for new books I should read! What books have you read (or are currently reading) that you think I should check out for myself?

7 comments :

  1. It's wonderful that you have a friend who supports you so enthusiastically in your choices! These books all sound fascinating, although it would only be morbid curiosity that would compel me to read the more nitty-gritty, behind the scenes funeral biz stuff. If some of it depresses you, then I'd be a goner. ;) As much as I'm drawn to the dark and spooky, it tends to be of the supernatural type, or the Burtonesque concept of a rich and colourful land of the dead, which I suspect, is my way of being in total denial about the actual death part... if that makes any sense. Haha.

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    1. It makes total sense. And yes, I consider myself ridiculously fortunate to have friends and family who are so supportive. I was scared initially to even tell them about my plans!

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  2. Really spooky and interesting books!

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  3. Mary Roach is one of my all time favorite authors! You should read her other books if you enjoyed those two, they're all equally as well written, informative, and downright human as those.

    I couldn't get through The Undertaking! I found it very dry and a bit drab, maybe I should give it another chance.

    Although they aren't about funerary services, I recommend Bill Bass' two books about The Body Farm, the research facility he founded in Tennessee. I think you might enjoy them.

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    1. Thank you! The Ball Bass books sound fascinating. I'll try to snag them and add them to my reading list after I finish up with these.

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  4. Oooohhh I've been meaning to read Stiff for ages now... but you've made Spook sound far more interesting, so now I'm leaning towards that one. Also, your friend is amazing. :)

    About books, I only found your blog today so I only have a teeny tiny notion of what you'd be interested in. But if you feel like giving funerary fiction (is this a thing? well now it is) a shot, try 'Ad Vitam Aeternam'. It's my all-time favorite novel. Quite graphic, but lots of great descriptions of... well, funeral things. I would be hard to explain it without spoiling the whole thing, but basically it's about a girl who works in a piercing/tattoo shop and her boss is a jerk so she meets this old man who's a funeral director and she starts working with him and... I really can't go on. But it's great.

    Also. About crypts. Would you be interested in bone chapels? Because Paul Koudounaris has this great book called The Empire Of Death, and it's all photos them - with an incredible amount of research, too.

    Anyway. Wonderful blog, I will most certainly stick around, and good luck on your path towards success in the funerary industry!
    xx

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    1. Holy gosh, can I just say I love you! These recommendations sound amazing and I'm not on the hunt to find them!

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