Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., July 24, 2009
The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter Endby Harold Schechter
Ballantine Books, 320 pp., $18 (paper)
Harold Schechter, curator of the wonderfully exhaustive Whole Death Catalog, knows a thing or two about life's endings – especially the more grisly ones. He'd have to, having authored half a dozen true crime books about serial killers (H.H. Homes! Ed Gein! Albert Fish! Gah!), not to mention co-authoring (with David Everitt) The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Consider that Schechter's less-frequent forays into fiction are a quartet of novels starring real-life (but long-gone) macabrist Edgar Allan Poe, and you can imagine he's just the man for the job of compiling this new necrology. What might keep you from cracking its trade-paperback covers is suspicion, the suspicion that ...
Well, you know how themed volumes, definitive in their breadth or otherwise, can be tarted up with the sort of authorial nattering more likely encountered while listening to early-morning drive-time radio? The kind of thing that adds little to the gathered goods and subtracts much from a reader's sense of intelligence? In this case: Fear not. Schechter's comments, background material, and lively but steadily ungoofy way of presenting his research and its subjects provide just the sort of guide a literate, death-curious person would want to spend his or her dwindling time perusing. From a brief examination of different cultures' mythologies about death to the chilling details of cryogenic preservation, from the particulars of drawing up a will to the gruesome shenanigans of necrophiliacs, the author covers life's terminus the way a fine shroud covers a corpse: thoroughly and effectively.
Did you know that the funerary furniture industry produces two calendars each year – one cheesecake, one beefcake – featuring scantily clad models posed atop coffins and hearses? Did you know that the brains of mummies are removed by poking a hooked rod through the nasal passages and drawing out the mushy bits clump by tiny clump? Do you want to know – are you perhaps dying to know – more? Schechter will tell you at length, engagingly, with plenty of vintage photographs and illustrations to keep your eyes from tiring.
We gladly recommend this book to you, the living.