Death on Earth:
Adventures in Evolution and Mortality
by Jules Howard.
Bloomsbury Books, 2016, 288 pages
List price: $27.00
Although he begins with trying to explain to his small daughter that the dead magpie that he brought home for a research project is not asleep, Jules Howard’s Death on Earth doesn’t talk very much about humans. Mostly he is concerned with ants, clams, magpies, frogs, worms, etc. This book is full of fascinating factoids—the oldest living animal was a 507-year old quahog (clam) and excursions, like the one to a farm where pigs are left to decay for forensic research. After discussion of three common theories that explain why aging occurs he ends the discussion with factors of natural selection. “’Reproduction is the beginning of death’, wrote James Joyce. And so it is. Sex and death really are two sides of the same coin.”
There are fascinating details about spiders and other animals that commit suicide in order to mate, ants and other animals that sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony, and kites and other scavengers that feast on the dead. After looking at the reactions of crows, elephants, donkeys, dogs and turtles, he concedes that some animals are distressed by the death of their associates, but ends still wondering if it they could possibly be grieving. Another unanswered question is whether the emerging anti-aging technologies will be a good thing or a problem. Despite the theme Howard’s humorous and light-hearted writing style makes this a fun read.
Death’s Summer Coat:
What the History of Death Dying Teaches Us about Life and Living
by Brandy Schillage
Pegasus Books, 2016, 273 pages
List price: $26.95
Brandy Shillace is a local author who works for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History (Case Western Reserve University). Her book, Death’s Summer Coat, may seem more relevant to Memorial Society members than Howard’s book. She looks at the changes in grief ritual and death practices through the centuries and through different cultures. The Tibetans practice “sky burial”— feeding the body to the vultures. The Wari of Brazil honored their loved ones by eating them. The Torajans of Indonesia exhume their dead every few years and rewrap them. The Victorian period of mourning went on for a year or in the case of the widow, maybe for a lifetime. Where in the past families were very involved with the process of dying and the process of funeral rituals, we have turned these over to the medical establishment and the mortuary industry. In previous eras there used to be extended death rituals, now they are condensed into a few days. She believes that death has been “sanitized and rendered unfamiliar.” Certainly it is a subject that we don’t talk about. Shillace sees the current “death cafe” movement and the green burial movement as signs that we may be changing this attitude.
Although these are very different books, there are some common threads. They both express the opinion that we need to relearn how to talk about death. In concluding chapters they both ask for meaning in life and death.