Book Review: Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies?, Kenneth V. Iserson (2001)

July 25th, 2005 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

An Encyclopedic Overview of Death & Dying

five out of five stars

Of the many books on death and dying that I’ve read over the past six months, Kenneth Iserson’s “Death to Dust” is by far the most comprehensive and enjoyable of the bunch. Weighing in at over 800 pages, “Death to Dust” is truly an encyclopedic approach to the subject.

Iserson divides his discussion into fourteen chapters; the shortest is about eleven pages (the introduction), while the longest is a massive 80+ pages (the average chapter length is about 50 pages). He adeptly covers all aspects of death, dying, grief, mourning, and post-mortem activities and concerns. He discusses practical matters, such as how to arrange a funeral, bodily transport across state lines, embalming, funerary rituals and etiquette, cremation, and advance directives. Iserson even includes a helpful, ten-page “Body-disposal Instructions and Discussion Guide,” designed to help the living ease the inevitable burden their next of kin will face when they pass away.

However, “Death to Dust” is not simply a consumer guide. Although he does offer a wealth of practical information, he also launches into more esoteric and macabre discussions. Some chapters are certainly not for the faint of heart. If cannibalism, headhunting, corpse dismemberment, grave robbing, anatomical dissection, autopsies, or putrification give you the heebie-jeebies, read with caution! True to its encyclopedic nature, “Death to Dust” takes care to cover ALL aspects of death and dying – particularly the more unpleasant and morbid topics. Iserson approaches these subjects with a dry sense of humor. Although I thought that his witticisms spiced the book up and made his discussion more entertaining, some audiences might be taken aback by Iserson’s (sometimes) light tone.

It’s obvious that Iserson (or his editor!) spent a lot of time making the book easily navigable (an especially important detail in a book this size!). Each of the fourteen chapters is further sub-divided into lettered subsections (usually 25+ per chapter). The subsections each have their own heading and read like short articles, so that readers can easily browse through the book and skim over desired sections. The index and table of contents are also very detailed. Finally, Iserson has gone to great pains to cite every single reference he consulted while constructing the book – and there are many! The typical chapter has hundreds of footnotes, which are conveniently included at the end of each individual chapter.

For the macabre among us, if you buy just one book on death and dying this year, look no further – “Death to Dust” is it! Those looking to arrange for their own post-mortem plans might find the book helpful as well, although there are consumer guides designed specifically for advising individuals of wills, advance directives, organ donation, and corpse disposal (“Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love,” by Lisa Carlson, is an excellent place to start). I’m not sure I’d recommend “Death to Dust” to the newly bereaved, however; some of the subject matter might prove a bit upsetting. On the upside, it’s easy to skip over these sections altogether, as the book is very organized.

My only gripe: Iserson included WAY too many quotes from the self-proclaimed “poet-mortician,” Thomas Lynch – who, I have determined, is a gawd-awful poet with an exaggerated view of his own self-importance. I literally cringed every time Iserson included excerpts of his amateurish prose – it’s just that painful.

(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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