There has been an encouraging flutter of interest in death recently, with the publication of several books aimed at the general reader including Atul Gawande’s Being mortal, currently at the top of the Sunday Times Best seller list.
My favourite of this new crop of death literature is paradoxically one which has probably received among the least attention.
Death’s summer coat by Brandy Schillace is a fascinating exploration of the history of death and dying and the rituals that surround it.
Dr Schillace is a scholar of medical anthropology, among other accomplishments, and in Death’s summer coat she examines the diverse ways in which people have dealt with mortality, sharing examples gathered from both far away, and long ago, to help us make sense of our own relationship with death.
This is a delightful book. Beautifully written, and so crammed with fascinating insights that after I’d finished it I went through it again with my highlighter pen, in an attempt not to forget any of it.
Subjects covered range from the sky burials practiced by Tibetan Buddhists, to necrophagia (mortuary cannibalism) which, until the 1960s, was practiced by the Wari in the rainforests of Brazil; and from the grief industry that sprang up around Memento Mori in Victorian Britain, to contemporary Cambodia where, during the Pol Pot period, a new death ritual was created explicitly to cope with the horrors of genocide.
Throughout, Brandy Schillace covers the heaviest of subjects with the lightest touch.
It remains to be seen whether the recent crop of death literature is a coincidence or the prelude to a more sustained societal engagement with death and dying. Either way, Death’s summer coat is an essential read for anyone interested in how present day humans deal with mortality.