Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? Hardcover – Feb 1994
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Probably the most complete recent book on the physical and cultural aspects of death. Covers everything from embalming, cremation, cryogenics, autopsies, organ donation, anatomical dissection, burials, funerals, decay, cannibalism, body snatching, use of corpses in secret rituals and religious ceremonies. This book sheds light on a subject that our society conveniently buries--literally and figuratively. As the author argues, the topic of death is treated with even more circumspection than pornography.
I plan on being prepared when I croak. That's why I've turned to the definitive book on pushing up daisies, one Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? By Kenneth V. Iserson. Indeed, everything you've ever wanted to know about cashing in your chips is included in this deadly little 709-page tomb, uh, tomefrom A, for autopsy (step 2: "A Y-shaped incision that begins at each shoulder or armpit area and runs beneath the breasts to the bottom of the breastbone. The incisions then join and proceed down the middle of the abdomen to the pubis, just above the genitals."), to Z, for zombies (from Haiti, where live burials purportedly take place after an injection of tetrodotoxin, a fish poison that induces a deathlike state in which the victim exhibits no outward response to stimulation.) -- Discover Magazine
Take one corpse, and add worms . . . A huge range of queries . . hundreds of questions and answers, that could be subtitled "What you always wanted to know about death, but were afraid to ask." -- New Scientist
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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.
Rest assured, however, that Galen Press (named after the famed Greek physician Galen of Pergamum) and Dr. Iserson have far more profound purposes in mind with the updated edition of this encyclopaedic guide to mortification than inciting ghastly giggles among adolescent boys and presumably mature reviewers. What sets this magnificently researched and dutifully footnoted volume apart from your usual dry-as-dust medical text is its literary sensibility, first noticeable in fourteen artfully titled section heads. I'm Dead -- Now What? covers the definition of death and what usually happens soon afterward; Beauty in Death details the embalming and cosmetic processes of treating cadavers; Souls on Ice takes a detour into the chilly science of cryonics; and Say It Gently anthologizes some sayings, poetry, and epitaphs in honor of the dead. The writing is clear, friendly, and gently humorous throughout, as if the good doctor Iserson were your charming raconteur uncle who just happens to know everything about the dead, and can't wait to tell you. I don?t see how librarians, med students, and mystery and horror writers can live without this one. -- P.MILLER ...
Lets be honest, humans do a very serious job of ignoring death and all that it entails. We don't want to see the messy parts, just the gushy greeting card parts where we swear to "never forget," and "always love," the person who is dying. And we certainly do our best to minimize and deny our own mortality. For this reason I think that adults of ever nationality should re-acquaint ourselves with death. Our grandparents were much more familiar with death, dying and the practical aspects thereof(how long can you keep a corpse in the parlor before it really MUST be buried)than we are today. Death has become so 'clean' as to be almost a non-issue.
Having dealt with the death of my own Mom within the past year and half, I can truthfully say it is better to deal with the subject before, than it is during or after. (I first read the book 4yrs ago.)
The personal growth you'll do while reading this book will be of immeasurable value to you. The style in which the book is written keeps the subject from being a gory dramatization of death, and also keeps you from Gothic over sentimentality. There is no better PRACTICAL treatment of so personal an issue on the market. Thank you, Mr. Iverson!
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