So that’s 10 decent dialogues about death and dying, yes? Yes. Ten great books you’ll find well worth reading – with my current bed-time favourite in the number one spot . . .
Let’s start with an investment (let’s face it, £36 or so is not cheap). You’ll handle this book with care though, poring over it many times, probably with a glass of something mellow and just as memorable.
Memento Mori feels like art, but Koudonaris also offers insightful details about the world’s more unusual sacred sites, revealing where and how human remains are kept on show in some way. Random fonts are frustrating at first, but clarity and high detail in each photo makes up for that in spades. If you fancy sneak previews, you'll find Paul on Instagram. Phenomenal images.
This was a surprise. It’s a mix of personal insights with academic insights – but it never goes too far into the medical terminology you need to explore Western ideals for death and dying.
Instead, O'Mahoney looks at the interactions between doctors, nurses, doulas and the individuals themselves – always writing from his own perspective as a gastroenterologist, but introducing the ideas and beliefs of others who can have such a lasting influence and final impact on the way we die today. Great book. Buy it, read it, read it again.
Author: Seamus O’Mahoney
Price: Last time I checked, £6.99 on Amazon
Footnote: “Roll up, roll up, get your jargon-free insights here.”
Some books aren't ideal for taking into the boudoir. Others are. Or would you not want to share a few stories with your beloved about the picking, freezing, stuffing, and stealing of bodies of figures in history? I would. These crisp chapters are perfect for dipping in and out of, or nodding off to. It’s not so much a tell-all though, as a concise anthology of who died, how, and – most importantly – what happened next, with the body and the burial. Or not. As the case may be.
Author: Bess Lovejoy
Price: Last time I checked, £15.99 on Amzaon
Footnote: “REALLY annoying size, but brilliant bedtime reading”
I’m not sure it warrants the inspired title, but as an anthology of graves worth visiting in Britain – this isn’t bad. Treneman’s sketch-writing skill as a humourist and detail-monger leaps from the pages.
You know what? She went from Disraeli to Dusty Springfiled via Screaming Lord Sutch and C. S. Rolls. Treneman didn't always pick the obvious graveyard choices. Instead, she went to great lengths to make a pilgrimage that would give us an insight into our thinking around death, dying, burial, and commemoration.
Author: Ann Treneman
Price: Hm. Anywhere from £3 to £15 on Amazon
Footnote: “An enjoyable read, but one among many.”
Or to give it its full title, ‘Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual’ – which kind of sets the scene, really. This is not just bedtime reading for the industry, it is very definitely a standard text.
For a firm grounding in the study of rituals, or to interpret them for sociological, religious or anthropological purposes, then You WIll Need This Book. That said, some of our thinking has changed since it was first published and it is also a bit like wading through treacle - but still, it's well worth having as a go-to reference.
Author: Peter Metcalf / Richard Huntington
Price: When I last checked, £25+ on Amazon
Footnote: “Learn, and learn a lot – but learn laboriously.”
That’s not the title. The title is A Celebration of Death: Some of the Buildings, Monuments and Settings of Funerary Architecture in the Western European Tradition – I kid you not. Even so, this doorstop of a title-busting book should never be far from your reach.
Why not? Because until you can dip in and see how someone like Stevens Curl manages to point out the extent, beauty, and stature of commemorative architecture all around us, you may not realise how much of it there is. Everyone has favourites thanks to Instagram – but here you'll find a range of Western European monuments, memorials, and mausolea that tell the story of funerary architecture through the ages AND whet the appetite for travel. I know this is #5, but it's nearly #1 on my list.
Author: James Stevens Curl
Price: Somewhere around £18 on Amazon
Footnote: “A panacea of pictures and plans in its page.”
It takes guts to describe guts. If vivid, well-written descriptions of dissection and decomposition appeal to you (and why not?), then there’s no better place to start than chapter one of Past Mortems.
That said, I like this book because it offers character as well as colour. You'll explore the subject – mortuaries, pathology, our attitudes to death – but at the same time get to know the author too: Valentine’s views on history, science and anthropology add a richer layer of insights to the subject itself. Beware alt-cover versions - I prefer this cheeky little black an' red number.
Author: Carla Valentine
Price: Last time I checked, about £9 on Amazon
Footnote: “Revealing a lot more to mortuaries than you thought.”
Okay, so, technically not a book but still words against death, which are always good. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Catholic Church of England and Wales (perpetrators of this podcast) but . . .
It is gentle, and supportive, and the first three episodes are good first steps for anyone who's interested in death and dying but doesn’t want to dip straight into Caitlin Doughty. [No offence, Caitlin]. Low-key religion, and ‘death chatter’ that's very normalised – more episodes to come. I'll be listening.
Author: The Catholic Church of England and Wales
Price: iTunes! Free! Leave a penny in the collection plate!
Footnote: “Hearing, not reading, makes these very powerful.”
Formative. But don’t buy this book – not yet. Davies is issuing his third edition of the Rhetoric of Funerary Rites in November this year. Or, if you do want a copy, hunt around. Amazon is not the cheapest place to buy it [SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSHOP!] although, if you’re into rhetoric and death in any way, this really is a must-have book.
Davies coined the phrase ‘words against death’. This is a worldwind tour, albeit quite academic, of a huge variety of funeral rituals and the ways in which we use words, specifically, to engage with death and dying. His insights and case studies take flight to form the basis of most if not all eulogising theory in the Western world. I have to admit, this book is probably one i'd take on holiday with me. Sad. I know.
Author: Douglas J. Davies
Price: Um, quite expensive. Go paperback: £25+
Footnote: “Not easy going, but well worth the journey.”
Take John Grisham. Add a bit of Jeff Bridges – or even a little Tom Cruise. (Tom Cruise was always a bit little but, hey. I still would.) Do not go anywhere near Nicholas Cage. Move on and give these protagonists a story with a dash of funerary skullduggery and a fair turn of prose ~ before serving up in a neat novella format. Preferably with an Old Fashioned before bedtime, iced, of course. . .
This isn't a tell-all book. Neither is it a serious 'gosh that's interesting!' look at American funerary business models. No, it's a feel-good, lawyer-does-good, Funeral-Director-gone-BAD work of rather fun fiction. Discover it for yourself before big screen budgets start screwing with this great little bedtime story! (Oh yes, did I mention it's been optioned by Warner Brothers?)
Author: Jonathan Harr
Price: Hard to find, cheap as chips. £1 or so – yes I’m serious
Footnote: “A multi-million dollar dispute about coffins. Oh yes.”
Coming up next: Five Magnificent Mortuary Melodies (as opposed to Those Men in their Flying Machines); 5 Songs for Skeletons ~ and A Clutch of Corpses on Canvas . . .
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