Book Review: History Is All You Left Me, Adam Silvera (2017)

Monday, January 16th, 2017

“history is how we get to keep him.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.

I’m a seventeen-year-old grieving his favorite person.

We first meet Griffin Jennings on Monday, November 20th, 2016. It’s been exactly one week since his best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo McIntyre died: drowned in the Pacific Ocean while his new love, Jackson Wright, watched helplessly from the shore. Now Theo’s East Coast/West Coast lives are about to collide – over his casket, no less – as Jackson and Griffin meet for the first time at his funeral. Only things don’t play out exactly how you’d think.

Theo was most of Griffin’s firsts: first date, first kiss, first time, first love. Childhood friends, they came out to each on the L train; weeks later, they came out to their parents, together. (This was a happy scene, the sort of which all LGBTQ kids deserve.) Griffin always knew that he’d have to say goodbye to Theo, who’s one year older/ahead of him in high school – but his early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College sure upended the timeline. Griff broke up with Theo the day before he left, thinking he’d spare himself the pain of eventually becoming the dumpee – and, just two months later, Theo began seeing Jackson. Drama, heartbreak, passive-aggressive sniping, and betrayal ensue.

We’ve all been there before. Except Theo ups and dies before any of it can be resolved, and Griffin and Jackson (not to mention Wade, the third member of the Manhattan squad) are left to sort through the detritus of a life too shortly lived.

To complicate matters further, Griffin suffers from OCD – mostly manifested in directions (left is good) and numbers (odd is bad) – which is getting progressively worse in Theo’s absence and death.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrik Backman (2015)

Friday, June 26th, 2015

For Children Aged Zero to One Hundred and Twenty-Three

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review on NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including domestic violence and war.)

Miamas is Granny and Elsa’s favorite kingdom, because there storytelling is considered the noblest profession of all. The currency there is imagination; instead of buying something with coins, you buy it with a good story. Libraries aren’t known as libraries but as “banks,” and every fairy tale is worth a fortune. Granny spends millions every night: tales full of dragons and trolls and kings and queens and witches. And shadows. Because all imaginary worlds have to have terrible enemies, and in the Land-of-Almost-Awake the enemies are the shadows, because the shadows want to kill the imagination.

And when the morning light seeps into the hospital room, Elsa wakes up in Granny’s arms. But Granny is still in Miamas.

The mightiest power of death is not that it can make people die, but that it can make the people left behind want to stop living.

Almost-eight-year-old Elsa is what many adults call “smart for her age.” She may only be seven, but Elsa knows a backhanded compliment when she hears one. A precocious kid, Elsa isn’t terribly popular, with children or adults. And most certainly not among shopkeepers, whose grammatically incorrect signage she doesn’t hesitate to correct with her handy, ever-present felt-tipped pen: her all-time favorite gift from her font-obsessed father.

Elsa’s best friend – her only friend, in point o’ facts – is her seventy-seven-year-old grandmother. Luckily, Granny lives in Elsa’s apartment building – right next door! People say that Granny’s “crazy,” and that may be true … but only to an extent. Mostly Granny doesn’t give a flying fuck what others think of her. It kind of comes with the territory: Granny was a medical student, and then an accomplished doctor (a surgeon, no less), before these fields had opened up to women. Heck, during Granny’s first few years on this earth, it was even illegal for Swedish women to vote!

So that’s one part of Granny’s “madness” – the radical notion that women are people and can do the same things as their male peers. Even if that involves traveling the globe, visiting the sites of natural disasters and man-made catastrophes while everyone else flees, rescuing people and rebuilding lives the best way she knows how.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Milestone Tapes, Ashley Mackler-Paternostro (2012)

Friday, May 30th, 2014

The Long Goodbye

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)

Jenna Chamberland is tired of fighting. For the past three years, she’s battled the cancer growing inside her. A radical double mastectomy, chemo, radiation – none were enough to prevent the cancer from metastasizing, from traveling to her bones, her liver, her lungs and her brain. With the diagnosis of stage four cancer comes the promise of not if, but when: prolonging the battle will give Jenna a few extra months, at best; but there is no cure for the cancer riddling her body.

Faced with the inevitable, Jenna decides to discontinue treatment and enjoy what little time she has left: Mothering her six-year-old daughter Mia, for half of whose brief life Jenna has been ill; preparing her husband and best friend Gabe for what lies ahead; and reconnecting with her sister Sophia, from whom she’s been estranged since the loss of their own mother to breast cancer more than two decades ago.

The first half of The Milestone Tapes (“Book One”) concerns Jenna’s “long goodbye.” With six months to live, Jenna aims to make the most of them. She celebrates a seemingly endless parade of “lasts” with her family: her last excursion to a favorite vacation spot with Gabe; the last of Mia’s birthdays that they will celebrate together; the last Christmas she’s able to spoil the ones she loves.

(More below the fold…)

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.*

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.

– Aaron Freeman, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” (via NPR)

(More below the fold…)

Goodbye, but not forever.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

2002-11-13 - Ozzy-002

But before they could begin, a voice cried out, as loudly as a whisper could cry. It was the ghost of a thin man with an angry, passionate face, and he cried:

“What will happen? When we leave the world of the dead, will we live again? Or will we vanish as our daemons did? Brothers, sisters, we shouldn’t follow this child anywhere till we know what’s going to happen to us!”

Others took up the question: “Yes, tell us where we’re going! Tell us what to expect! We won’t go unless we know what’ll happen to us!”

Lyra turned to Will in despair, but he said, “Tell them the truth. Ask the alethiometer, and tell them what it says.”

“All right,” she said.

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

No one spoke. Those who had seen how daemons dissolved were remembering it, and those who hadn’t were imagining it, and no one spoke until a young woman came forward. She had died as a martyr centuries before. She looked around and said to the other ghosts:

“When we were alive, they told us that when we died we’d go to Heaven. And they said that Heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That’s what they said. And that’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew.

“Because the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom forever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep, or rest, or peace.

“But now this child has come offering us a way out and I’m going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.

“So I urge you: come with the child out to the sky!”

But her ghost was thrust aside by the ghost of a man who looked like a monk: thin and pale, with dark, zealous eyes even in his death. He crossed himself and murmured a prayer, and then he said:

“This is a bitter message, a sad and cruel joke. Can’t you see the truth? This is not a child. This is an agent of the Evil One himself! The world we lived in was a vale of corruption and tears. Nothing there could satisfy us. But the Almighty has granted us this blessed place for all eternity, this paradise, which to the fallen soul seems bleak and barren, but which the eyes of faith see as it is, overflowing with milk and honey and resounding with the sweet hymns of the angels. This is Heaven, truly! What this evil girl promises is nothing but lies. She wants to lead you to Hell! Go with her at your peril. My companions and I of the true faith will remain here in our blessed paradise, and spend eternity singing the praises of the Almighty, who has given us the judgment to tell the false from the true.”

Once again he crossed himself, and then he and his companions turned away in horror and loathing.

Lyra felt bewildered. Was she wrong? Was she making some great mistake? She looked around: gloom and desolation on every side. But she’d been wrong before about the appearance of things, trusting Mrs. Coulter because of her beautiful smile and her sweet-scented glamour. It was so easy to get things wrong; and without her daemon to guide her, maybe she was wrong about this, too.

But Will was shaking her arm. Then he put his hands to her face and held it roughly.

“You know that’s not true,” he said, “just as well as you can feel this. Take no notice! They can all see he’s lying, too. And they’re depending on us. Come on, let’s make a start.”

She nodded. She had to trust her body and the truth of what her senses told her; she knew Pan would have.

So they set off, and the numberless millions of ghosts began to follow them. Behind them, too far back for the children to see, other inhabitants of the world of the dead had heard what was happening and were coming to join the great march. Tialys and Salmakia flew back to look and were overjoyed to see their own people there, and every other kind of conscious being who had ever been punished by the Authority with exile and death. Among them were beings who didn’t look human at all, beings like the mulefa, whom Mary Malone would have recognized, and stranger ghosts as well. But Will and Lyra had no strength to look back; all they could do was move on after the harpies, and hope.

…..

Will and Lyra exchanged a look. Then he cut a window, and it was the sweetest thing they had ever seen.

The night air filled their lungs, fresh and clean and cool; their eyes took in a canopy of dazzling stars, and the shine of water somewhere below, and here and there groves of great trees, as high as castles, dotting the wide savanna.

Will enlarged the window as wide as he could, moving across the grass to left and right, making it big enough for six, seven, eight to walk through abreast, out of the land of the dead.

The first ghosts trembled with hope, and their excitement passed back like a ripple over the long line behind them, young children and aged parents alike looking up and ahead with delight and wonder as the first stars they had seen for centuries shone through into their poor starved eyes.

The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air…and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

(More below the fold…)

Current on "An Organic Death"

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Eco-friendly in life, eco-friendly in death. Current reports on “organic” burials in this short, quirky little segment.
 


 

The film is way too long for me to transcribe, but here’s the gist:

Death as part of the natural life cycle has been forgotten in the UK. The biological process of what happens to the body and the environment during burial and cremation is largely unknown. In an ultimate bid to recycle, should we take more responsibility for what we leave behind?

If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford (2000), a muckraking exposé of the American funeral industry, as well as Lisa Carlson’s Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, a sort of DIY guide to nontraditional funerals. For more on “green” burial practices, start with the Wiki entry on “Natural Burial,” where you can find external links to a number of associations and websites.

Finally, you may want to consider bypassing the whole funeral spiel altogether, and do something useful with your corpse – like donating it to science.

Of course, there’s also the “Jim shoes” option.

(More below the fold…)

Live Green, Die Green

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

Here’s something you probably didn’t know…

Throughout the developed world the business surrounding death has often been an uneasy topic of discussion. Originating in the mid-19th Century, the modern funeral has evolved into an economic and cultural monster, with a vast network of supporting industries and myriad options for your earthly remains.

This original GOOD Magazine animation takes you inside the business of death.

More on the business of death and eco-friendly burials here (or jump right on down to the list of DIY/consumer orgs, here).

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

Monday, July 25th, 2005

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!)

Book Review: Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, Penny Colman (1997)

Saturday, June 4th, 2005

Suitable for young adults & casual readers

three out of five stars

In “Corpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History of Burial,” author Penny Colman offers a brief overview of death, dying, and related customs and rituals throughout time and across cultures. Intended for a younger audience (grades 9 through 12), the book is a relatively superficial examination of an incredibly complex topic.

Although the book’s title stresses burial customs, “Corpses, Coffins and Crypts” includes discussions of a number of disposal methods, such as burial (in cemeteries, tombs, catacombs, and mausoleums), cremation (with either burial or scattering), exposure, and cryopreservation. More morbid practices, like cannibalism, are largely omitted. The most emphasis is placed on burial in cemeteries, and Colman includes a number of black-and-white photos to supplement the text; most are of famous or historic cemeteries and graves.

Throughout the book, Colman maintains a lighthearted and humorous tone, perhaps to set apprehensive readers at ease with the taboo material. For instance, she incorporates a picture of Archie Arnold’s grave into the book. Arnold, a prankster in life, arranged to have his tomb flanked on either side by antique parking meters, with their dials set to “expired.” Colman also interweaves a number of personal anecdotes and narratives into the text, giving her discussion a conversational, friendly feel. While some readers might appreciate the tone, I found it a bit informal for my tastes.

“Corpses, Coffins and Crypts” is probably most suitable for teenagers, as well as adult audiences who want a brief, casual read on the subject. For those looking for a more scholarly and in-depth look at death and dying, I highly recommend Kenneth Iserson’s encyclopedic Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? (from which Colman quoted heavily). At over 800 pages, Iserson truly does cover all the bases!

(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!)

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

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

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!)

Book Review: The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford (1998)

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Surely the dead must be rolling in their proverbial graves!

five out of five stars

In “The American Way of Death Revisited,” journalist and muckracker Jessica Mitford presents a searing exposé of the “death-care” industries, particularly funeral homes/directors and cemeteries. She potently argues that many death-care workers, rather than looking out for their customers’ best interests, are more concerned about their bottom lines; that the FTC has failed to curb manipulative and downright illegal sales techniques engaged in by these businesses; that many of our assumptions about funerary practices are wrong; and that consumers should actively take part in honoring their dearly departed, rather than turning the task (and thousands of dollars) over to McMortuaries.

With the help of undercover investigations, disgruntled death-care workers, and grieving families who fell prey to unscrupulous death-care workers, Ms. Mitford details the manipulative, deceitful, and sometimes illegal tactics that death-care workers use to trump their competitors in an increasingly oversaturated market. We’re even treated to shocking statements right from the horses’ mouths: the authors offers a multitude of quotes pulled straight from the trade journals, such as “The Director,” “Mortuary Management,” “Casket & Sunnyside,” and (my personal favorite) “American Professional Embalmer.”

In “The American Way of Death Revisited,” we learn the following:

* Although funeral directors would like you to believe otherwise, embalming is neither required by state law nor essential to public health.

* Again contrary to the fibs of the “funeral men” (as Ms. Mitford ominously refers to them), citizens are free to scatter “cremains” wherever they so choose (the state of California is the lone exception) – it is not necessary to bury them, store them in a pricey urn, or pay someone to scatter them. Nor is it required that your loved one be cremated in a casket – a cardboard or pine box or shroud does just as well.

* The purchase of “pre-need” plans usually serve as in invitation for the old “bait-and-switch” trick; by the time you pass away, the casket you initially paid for is no longer available. Thus, your grieving relatives are forced to choose between a free yet inferior substitute – or an “upgrade” for a fee.

* Open casket funerals are a rather new invention, and are unique to the United States. Although funeral directors assert that a public viewing (of an embalmed corpse, of course) is necessary for healing in the survivors, they cannot produce one documented, scientific study to support this claim. Nor are they licensed psychologists; strangely, this does not prevent them from charging customers for “grief counseling.”

* As in many other industries, the ownership of funeral homes and cemeteries is becoming concentrated in the hands of a few massive McMonopolies. In some areas of the country, as many as 70% of the funeral homes may be owned by one company (talk about price fixing!). Even more infuriating are the companies’ attempts to conceal ownership from consumers; they would much rather have you believe that you’re purchasing a plan from kindly old “Uncle” Jack, who handled your grandmother’s funeral arrangements so many years ago.

Of course, these are but a few of the insidious practices engaged in by the “funeral men.” The author manages to fill a full 274 pages with the others.

Ms. Mitford also explains where the Federal Trade Commission was (and has been) while millions of Americans were (are) being ripped off during their time of utmost vulnerability. The answer certainly won’t give you much faith in the current state of our government (unless you share Mark Twain’s sentiments: “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”).

“The American Way of Death Revisited” is actually a revised and updated version of 1963’s “The American Way of Death.” While Ms. Mitford does offer some new information and insight, including more on the FTC and the development of McMortuaries, much of the information is dated. For example, many of the price quotes are still in 1960s currency. For this reason alone, I’d give the book 4.5 stars rather than 5.

Nonetheless, “The American Way of Death Revisited” is an impressive and shocking piece of work. It’s interesting to note how the “American Way of Death” is a relative recent phenomenon, and not a longstanding tradition, as those in the industry would have you believe. England is proud to boast that they’re 50 years behind us in their funerary practices; let’s hope that, through collective action, we can regress even further back than 50 years, to the days of simple pine coffins and home viewings.

(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!)

Book Review: Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, Lisa Carlson (1997)

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Care for the Dead…and Their Hard-Earned Savings!

five out of five stars

In “Caring for the Dead,” Lisa Carlson provides both an informative guide to DIY funerals and cremations, as well as a searing exposé of the funeral and cemetery industries.

Carlson divides her book into three sections: “Personal Stories” is a 40-page introduction to the text in which different individuals (including Carlson) discuss their experiences with death and the subsequent disposal of the dead; “General Information” consists of 14 chapters and explains both “traditional” and non-traditional funerals, as well as cremation and body and organ donation; finally, “Caring for the Dead” details the relevant laws and regulations of all 50 US states.

It was the “General Information” section that I found most captivating. I’ve never had to arrange a funeral (and hopefully I won’t need to for some time yet!), so I was woefully unaware of what actually takes place during the course of planning and implementing one. Carlson demonstrates how greed and callousness have pervaded the funeral and burial industries, causing prices to skyrocket while sales tactics plummet to new levels of depravity.

Through manipulative techniques and downright lies, funeral directors convince John Q. Public that embalming is both required by law and essential for public safety (in reality, it is neither, and the chemicals used are actually toxic to the environment), while cemeteries strong-arm consumers into paying maximum price for a minimum amount of real estate, all the while demanding that any upgrades be purchased, installed, and maintained solely by them (for a hefty fee, of course!). Even cremations don’t come cheap, as crematories guilt-trip survivors into buying expensive caskets (which will simply be destroyed within days) and cemeteries deceive them into buying niches in which to “bury” the cremains.

While this is all quite appalling, it hardly comes as a surprise; after all, it’s just another example of capitalism at its worst. Harder to comprehend is how funeral homes and cemeteries are allowed to get away with this sort of crap! Well, again, I guess I shouldn’t be shocked – we are talking about the FTC here. Like many savvy businesses, funeral homes and cemeteries simply band together in the form of associations, which then employ lobbyists, apply a modicum of political pressure, and top it all off with campaign contributions, and – presto! – the FTC at your command!

End of political rant, back to the book review!

In essence, the “General Information” section serves as an excellent consumer guide, informing you of your rights, detailing the immoral and sometimes illegal sales tactics you’re likely to encounter, and teaching you how to come out victorious over those who wish to separate you from YOUR money and rob you of the valuable opportunity to care for YOUR dead, YOUR way. The final chapters on state-by-state laws offer an excellent supplement to the general information.

I highly recommend “Caring for the Dead” to EVERYONE, whether you anticipate planning a funeral in the near future or not. Many Americans are duped into buying funeral and burial services that they neither need nor want. Chances are that, sooner or later, we’ll all be responsible for “caring for the dead,” or will know someone who is. As consumers (it sounds rather crass, but `tis true!), we must arm ourselves with information so that we aren’t caught off-guard when a death does occur. After all, we shouldn’t expect those involved in the funeral business to look after our bests interests; the bottom line is that they’re businesspeople who are concerned about their bottom lines! Educate yourself, and share your knowledge with your friends, your family, and anyone you know who’s in the unfortunate position of having to arrange a funeral or cremation.

Another excellent book that deals with this subject is “The American Way of Death Revisited,” by Jessica Mitford (to which Lisa Carlson contributed). Ms. Mitford deals with the subject in more of a muck-raking journalistic manner (as opposed to a consumer guide, as is “Caring for the Dead”), but it’s a highly informative analysis of the “American death” nonetheless. After developing a sense of the funeral industry’s antics in “Caring for the Dead,” you’ll appreciate Mitford’s dry wit and humor in “The American Way of Death Revisited.”

(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!)