An amusing if grisly compendium of everything we never wished to know about mortuaries, cemeteries, and other less savory aspects of the Big Casino.
Anne Rice biographer Ramsland (Prism of the Night, 1991) seems hell-bent to corner the literary market on all things ghoulish yet true (see Ghost, below), but her chipper inquisitiveness seems incongruous in depicting “Strange Embalmings,” famous disinterments, the occasional rogue funeral home that treats clients as “a side of beef rather than a person,” and the like. Still, her enthusiasm knits together wide-ranging topics that feel more anecdotal than narrative. Noting that her introduction to the industry “was through scary movies like The Comedy of Terrors [with] Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff,” she is intrigued by the wholesome sensitivity and respect for tradition of the funeral directors she meets from firms including the online Electronic Funeral Service Association; the Upper East Side’s Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, which since 1898 has originated many funerary customs; and a small-town Ohio establishment whose proprietors continue the disappearing tradition of living onsite: “[I] could just imagine the children . . . fantasizing about corpses and ghosts.” Although Ramsland touches on sensitive social issues relating to the changing face of death, such as the controversial purchase by conglomerates like Service Corporation International of many independent funeral homes and the discreet rise of for-profit cemeteries, her personal predilections seem to lead her towards the juicier pulp details. She adeptly locates these within history and culture, so that, for example, Poe’s work informs discussion of premature burial, sufficiently feared in the 19th century to inspire alarm-equipped coffins. Her depictions of such notorious postmortems as those of Lenin and Eva Perón add more depth to sections on autopsies and embalming, and she offers memorable examples of the tapophile’s (that is, gravestone fanatic’s) obsessions, like hard-to-find slave cemeteries and the alleged Parisian gravesite of Jim Morrison.
No deep excavations into the mysteries of human demise here, but shovelfuls of intriguing tidbits for anyone curious about what begins when life ends.