Though not quite “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Death but Were Afraid to Ask,” Death: Corpses, Cadavers, and Other Grave Matters is a clearly written, easily understood guide to the world of the dead. It starts out by differentiating between what is alive and what is dead. For something to be dead, it had to, at one time, be living, therefore rocks aren’t dead. Knowing this, we are ready to learn about human beings — both living and dead.
Once it has established what a living thing is, Death describes cells and the functions of the major human body systems. Illustrations that are not too anatomically gross help the reader understand concepts like “homeostasis.” After a brief introduction to life, Death undertakes the task of explaining itself.
There are essays written by a young man with a terminal disease, a heart attack victim, funeral directors, a hospice nurse, anatomy professors, pathologists, death investigators, and others who face death, personally or professionally, every day. Reading what the professionals say about the work they do puts that work in a new perspective. The idea of cutting into dead bodies may be “fascinating!” for some, and “Ugh!” for others, but the feelings of those who actually do such work is worthy of note. There are tables telling us “Life Expectancies at Birth for Selected Countries” (if you can, be born in Japan — it’s the longest, at 82.07 years), and about “Organ Donation in the United States.” For those puzzled by terminology used by TV forensics technicians and pathologists, there are good definitions of “livor” and “rigor mortis” and many other terms associated with death and dying. Methods used by pathologists are also investigated and explained.
Perhaps knowing what happens to the human body and the organisms it hosts after death is not the most appetizing subject, but it certainly is interesting. Author Elizabeth A. Murray’s straightforward approach invites the reader to continue on from one detail to the next. Her description of the amazing reproduction and frenzied activity of friendly bacteria once the body is dead inspires more of a “wow” reaction, than “ick.”
If it’s “ick” one is looking for, there are lovely pictures of a fly laying eggs on animal tissue and an emerging larva. As someone who lowers her voice and clears her throat before she can even say the word “maggot,” I am disproportionately disturbed by these pictures. I have little problem with photos of mummified remains, dying people, bodies on slabs, and a donor heart cradled in a doctor’s hands, but show me fly eggs and I can’t eat rice for a month!
How is it decided who will be autopsied and who won’t? Is there life after death? What about death with dignity? What happens at the Body Farm, and why? All of these questions, and so many more, are answered on the pages of Death. Whether one is mildly curious or considering a career in forensics, pathology, funeral direction, or any of the other areas that deal with the dying and the dead, Death: Corpses, Cadavers, and Other Grave Matters is a worthy introduction that does not bog the reader down in incomprehensible technical details and minutiae.
Bottom Line: Would I buy Death: Corpses, Cadavers, and Other Grave Matters? Yes, it informs without being morbid, explaining the many facets of death in simple, accessible terms.