Book Review: When We Die : The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death, Cedric A. Mims (2000)

June 1st, 2005 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

An interesting – yet imperfect – overview of death & dying

three out of five stars

In “When We Die,” Biology Professor Cedric Mims provides a succinct overview of all things macabre. He touches upon standard death and dying subjects such as embalming, burial, cremation, organ donation, and bereavement, as well as more unusual topics, including cannibalism, cellular suicide, mummification, compostoriums, acid baths, and necrophilia. No stone is left unturned in his discussion of death, dying, and “the science, culture, and rituals of death.”

As much as I enjoyed “When We Die,” it was not without its flaws. For starters, it doesn’t seem as though the book was properly edited. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Mims is a BAD writer, but it could have been better. His misuse of commas, for instance, is atrocious. He also tends to have trouble transitioning between topics. Some of the awkwardness probably stems from the fact that Mims lives in England and spent some time in Australia and Africa. His phraseology can be clumsy and cumbersome, and I’m willing to bet that it’s due to cultural differences. The book was initially released in the UK, and it doesn’t appear to have been modified for its US edition. Spelling and word usage differences remain intact, when his editor really should have changed them in the US version to reflect his new audience.

Additionally, I found some of his statements to be questionable, while other claims were just plain incorrect. For example, he says that $6 million, “spent over 10 years,” is enough to clean all the water in “third world countries” and eliminate deaths due to diarrhea (that estimate seems awfully low, no?). He also refers to the 1978 Jonestown massacre as a “mass suicide” (despite overwhelming evidence that many members were murdered outright), and makes the dubious claim that, “in all cases [of sensational homicides] the murderer is mentally deranged.” Taken together, these errors made me question the rest of the information Mims included in “When We Die.” Though he does list 4+ pages of references, he does not use footnotes in his text – so it’s usually impossible to tell what information he pulled from which sources.

Nonetheless, “When We Die” is a fascinating and largely enjoyable read. Serious scholars may want to pass this one by, but it’s an interesting and manageable discussion for laypeople.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

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