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A grave situation for the reader

Death: A Graveside Companion is a recently-published phantasmagorical collection of deathly images. Paintings of death, photographs of death (popular in late 19th and early 20th Century), it is a ghoulish and garish compilation of almost everything we might want to know and see about death. Definitely not a book to be read in bed, and certainly not to be left on the table in a GP’s surgery.

Years ago, I remember going to an aunt’s funeral. She was laid out in the local hospital near where she was killed on the road. One of her colleagues was heard to say, over the open coffin, “I have never seen her look so well”. Then, off to the ‘corpse house’ in Donegal, where she was waked for two nights, the first by her family and the second night by neighbours and friends. Finally, there was the removal to the church and thence, at last, her funeral and burial.

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Reposing at home or in a funeral parlour has become more popular in Dublin in recent years.  An open coffin provides a moving way of saying goodbye to a friend or colleague. 

In days of yore, death was rarely mentioned in medical school, except in the anatomy dissection room, or in forensic medicine and post-mortem examinations. Both sites were witness to vasovagal episodes falling upon raw medical students.   We were instilled with the adage that hospital doctors should always attend the post-mortems of their patients. Is that still the case?

Ebenstein’s admirable book contains a panoply of memorable photographs, paintings, etchings, etc, interspersed with 19 essays. The quality of the image reproductions is magnificent, but the essays are marred by being printed in light brown on a dark brown background.  This makes them very difficult to read in the artificial light of a dull, grey winter. It is a terrible shame — if there is a second edition, the editor should revert to black-on-white or some legible combination. 

The essays cover a wide range of deadly dissertations on themes such as the art of dying, examining the dead, memorialising the dead, the personification of death, symbolising death and the dead after life. Just about every conceivable topic about death is covered, except the burgeoning practice (in the US) of cryotherapy — a fatuous, futile exercise. 

The reproduced images are truly fantastic, many coming from the Richard Harris art collection, but the attributions are in a minute text — illegible even with a magnifier.  Thanks to Google, we can learn that this collection of some 300 images was shown in the Wellcome Museum. It is a unique collection devoted to the iconography of death, including art works, historical artefacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from across the world.

The book presents a collection of deadly images, skeletons unlimited, and evocative and provocative photos of guillotines, etc.

From ghosts, to ghouls, to séances — it is all there. Dead, deceased, departed, decomposed, skeletal, posters of death, adverts using death to sell, purgatory, hell, skulls, death masks. Most of the imagery is Christian and European. Death: A Graveside Companion is a remarkable directory of death and its accoutrements, which delves into every conceivable aspect of death in words and in pictures.   It will be of particular interest to morticians, morbid pathologists, forensic scientists, postmortemists and anatomists.

Death: A Graveside Companion is essentially a photographic documentary of death and its surrounding phenomena supported by 19 essays on its implications, methodology and outcomes. Not for the faint-hearted and taphophobics (fear of being buried alive).  

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