A wide-ranging, user-friendly attempt to make death an acceptable, even comfortable, topic of ordinary conversation.
Cultural historian Schillace (Medical History/Case Western Reserve Univ.), managing editor of the health journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, believes that by learning about the practices associated with death and dying in other cultures and in earlier times, we can approach our mortality with less fear. In contrast to the medicalization of death in today’s Western world, the author presents various rituals and cultural customs, including Tibetan Buddhist sky burials and Victorian memento mori photography, as ways of keeping the bereaved connected to the deceased. She skims lightly through centuries of history, touching on the replacement of priests by physicians at the deathbed, the impact of medieval plagues, and the role of body snatchers in medical education. Schillace partly compensates for the shallowness of the history with numerous unusual and fascinating black-and-white illustrations that feature corpses, skeletons, medical students, gravestones, and grieving mothers. Later in the narrative, the author turns to how death is managed in the contemporary West, how rituals have been devalued, how the dying have been hidden away from sight in hospitals, and how the disposal of the dead is managed by funeral directors. “Perhaps compassion works best in collaboration….Death need not be a solo affair,” writes the author. “It can be communal, and is perhaps best approached in just that way.” She writes glowingly of a growing movement to counter the death-denying attitude of Western society: the emergence of Death Salons and Death Cafes, in which ordinary people, not necessarily the bereaved, come together to talk openly and freely about death, to ask questions, and to share ideas—to have a conversation about death.
Surprisingly easy reading on a usually dark topic and fine preparation for anyone preparing to launch or simply attend a Death Salon or Cafe.