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Volume 11, No. 3—April 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

We asked four scholars to recommend the best recent books about mortality.

Gary Laderman, associate professor of religion at Emory University and author of Death in Modern America: A Cultural History of the Funeral Industry in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, forthcoming).

"Scholarship on the history of death in the United States is expanding rapidly, showing signs of interdisciplinary vitality and methodological innovation. In her slim but substantive historical monograph, Obituaries in American Culture (Mississippi, 2000), Janice Hume charts larger trends in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America through a study of newspaper death notices. Anchoring her survey to major junctures in American history—Andrew Jackson's presidency, the Civil War, the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment—Hume moves from careful examinations of individual testimonials to more general discussions of dominant cultural values relating to social divisions between classes, races, regions, and the sexes. Public memory simultaneously distorts and illuminates, she points out: The idealism of the individual obituary must be set against the fact that most deaths receive no public acknowledgment. By the end of her investigation, Hume, like many others who study this history, has underscored an unavoidable anthropological fact about America, one that explains the field's vigor: Ours is a nation preoccupied with death."

Christine Quigley, author of Death Dictionary (McFarland, 1994), The Corpse: A History (McFarland, 1996), and Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century (McFarland, 1998).

"What better guide to the corporeal aspects of death and its aftermath than the observations of a poetic pathologist? In The Day of the Dead and Other Mortal Reflections (Harcourt Brace, 1993), the pathologist Frank Gonzalez-Crussi speaks eloquently about the language, abstraction, and personification of death from a dissecting-table perspective. His work is more than reportage and reminiscences, although those elements—spiced with literary allusions—enhance his discussions of embalming, autopsy, human sacrifice, skeletons, death masks, holy relics, and scientific specimens. The author visits an embalmer who has been practicing for more than sixty years, and he returns to his native Mexico to participate in the Día de los Muertos celebrations. In Suspended Animation: Six Essays on the Preservation of Bodily Parts (Harcourt Brace, 1995), we travel through time with Gonzalez-Crussi and the photographer Rosamond Purcell as our guides. Gonzalez- Crussi shows us Renaissance Bologna's anatomy theater and introduces us to the seventeenth-century Dutch embalmer Fredrik Ruysch and the sixteenth-century Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Purcell's photographs convey the quiet dignity of the hydrocephalic, the conjoined; her work captures the unexpected beauty of a fetus floating in formalin and a skull crowned with lifeless flowers. Gonzalez-Crussi explains that the meticulous sculpting of anatomic models of the body and its components in wax was an alternative to preserving parts in fixatives. 'Wax modeling was the first successful effort we undertook to distance ourselves from the dead,' he writes. 'Since then, we have not ceased in our efforts to deepen the gulf.'"

Stephen Prothero, associate professor of religion at Boston University and author of Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (California, 2001).

"Jessica Mitford may be dead, but her muckraking classic, The American Way of Death, lives on in revised form as The American Way of Death Revisited (Knopf, 1998). Discussing death and dying is no longer taboo, so this book doesn't shock as much today as it did when it first appeared in 1963 and educated her gentle readers about the uglier aspects of embalming fluid, among other things. But the book remains a great read. Like an acupuncturist gone bad, Mitford pokes funeral directors and prods death-care conglomerates, insisting that the funerals they peddle are both overpriced and overwrought. But not all funeral directors are crying uncle. In The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade (Norton, 1997), Thomas Lynch fights back in twelve elegant essays. He doesn't take on Mitford's consumerist complaints; in fact, he deadpans that 'we buy these caskets for less than we sell them for.' Still, his dual existence as a funeral director in Milford, Michigan, and a poet and essayist of astonishing range gives the lie to Mitford's stereotype of the undertaker as an uncouth crook. Mitford's book is a blaring trumpet blast of a complaint that returns again and again to a few favorite notes; Lynch's stories about life and death in a small Midwestern town play all along the scale of human experience. Unlike Mitford, who is only truly comfortable with comedy and outrage, Lynch is at home with both the nostalgic and the ironic, the elegiac and the absurd."

Melvin Urofsky, professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Lethal Judgments: Assisted Suicide and American Law (Kansas, 2000).

"Some of the great unresolved legal and cultural debates of the past decade revolve around the choices society is willing to allow people at the end of their lives. I explore these issues—living wills, physician-assisted suicide, the refusal of unwanted medical attention—in the classes I teach, and my job has been made easier by Peter Filene's In the Arms of Others: A Cultural History of the Right-to-Die in America (Ivan R. Dee, 1998). Filene focuses on the influential legal case involving Karen Ann Quinlan, whose parents in 1976 won the right to disconnect her from life support. Quinlan's seemingly radical doctrine was later validated by the nation's highest court. But though the legal doctrine governing the right-to-die was established in the 1970s, Filene writes, the nation had been focused on end-of-life issues for a decade or two before that: The late 1950s and the 1960s saw a proliferation of books and magazine and newspaper articles about death, a topic that previously had been somewhat taboo. The book frequently returns to the Quinlans, using the suffering of a single family to anchor what might otherwise be abstract arguments. Filene does not hide his own emotions and views. While he does not proselytize, he is clearly very involved in this subject, not just as a scholar but as a person. This transmutes what might otherwise have been a dry academic study into a powerful examination of an issue that will affect all of us: how much control we have over our last days."

John Palattella

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