Cross-disciplinary study of the ways that shifts in cultural attitudes and beliefs have altered how death is mourned and the dead memorialized.
Gilbert (English/Univ. of Calif., Davis) has previously written on this subject from a personal perspective (Wrongful Death, 1995) and from a literary one (Inventions of Farewell, 2001). Here she combines autobiographical narrative and literary criticism with anthropological, cultural and sociological studies to give a broader, more complex picture. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, her academic study of the contemporary elegy evolved into a more general study of dying, death, bereavement and mourning in Western cultures. Personal experiences open each chapter in Part One, “Arranging My Mourning,” which considers such universal aspects of death as grief, widowhood, memorials and the desire to communicate with the dead. In Part Two, “History Makes Death,” Gilbert turns to the work of anthropologists, sociologists and historians, but also uses personal stories, the music of Brahms and the writings of Evelyn Waugh and Jessica Mitford as tools. This section examines changes in attitudes towards death and in the rituals and language associated with it; the effects of 20th-century technologies on everything from genocide to hospital-managed dying; and the documentation of death through film and still photography. Part Three, “The Handbook of Heartbreak,” appears to be the core of her original literary study on the poetics of grief. Here the author focuses on how modern poets express confusion, anxiety and distress over death. While it is filled with numerous excerpts from, and analysis of, the works of 20th-century American and British poets, Gilbert ventures beyond the written word to consider the effects of the horrifying images of 9/11, attempts by bereaved individuals to find closure, hastily improvised public memorials and the World Trade Center memorial design as a reflection of the absence and blankness now associated with the end of life.
A scholarly, well-researched work that assumes, even demands, a strong interest in contemporary English-language literature.