As featured in Issue #2: Summer Solstice Edition
Having the opportunity to read and review Corvis Nocturnum’s The Book of the Dead: Death and Mourning Through the Ages, I can only review it from the perspective of someone with a lifelong love affair with death culture. That love affair has led me to toil as a cemetery caretaker during oppressively hot summer months, both as a paid employee and volunteer. At the risk of sounding like a necrophiliac, “Charnel House” is a term that makes me feel romantic. Cemeteries, graveyards, and morgues are places I’ve traipsed through – often with dates who’ve been brave enough to entertain me. And not because I’m intensely morbid or death-obsessed, not exactly. It’s because places of the dead are both peaceful and taboo. They’re places to contemplate life or have a thought about anything, in the face of life’s hard limit. Burial grounds are also parks without joggers or the yammering of children. And funerary customs tell us more about the living than the dead. A fascination with death and learning about death can provide much-needed insight. And it’s especially needed in societies where death is hands-off, where the dead meat that commuters chew on during their lunch breaks is largely a mystery, and where the facts of mortality are avoided only to worsen the crisis when death eventually comes a-knockin’. Corvis Nocturnum’s work offers that kind of insight.
The Book of the Dead succinctly reviews funerary practices, bereavement, religious beliefs, the symbolism of death, and includes a handy pictorial field guide to tombstone/monument symbols and their meaning. That guide alone makes it worth the purchase. The book also delves into basic embalming practices, hearses, the fashion of death, and goth subculture, among other subjects of interest to the death-curious. It’s not a be-all-end-all text, but it’s a fine primer and an enjoyable read. It’s also important to read. Positive death culture needs to be spread and books like these serve that purpose well.
I’m a follower of The Order of the Good Death, a society of mortuary professionals and death-interested civilians. The work put into this book – and the tone of it – echoes one of their tenets: “I believe that by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.” The Book of the Dead pulls death out from behind closed doors and speaks at length about the cultures which are hands-on when it comes to the deceased. Nocturnum casts them in the light of normalcy rather than morbidity. You’ll learn about poisonous Victorian mourning veils, and that’s always fun times. But, there’s also perspective on gaining closure from spending more time with the deceased – our dearly departed. It’s worth considering that maybe some mortuary and grieving practices are simply better for the living.
I have one small criticism for The Book of the Dead aside from the title being well-known for other books. It needed more passion. I’m the kind of gal who gets reach-arounds in ossuaries, so, maybe my perspective is skewed. It’s lightweight and fun without losing academic quality, and it’s clearly a deep interest of the author, but more personal anecdote and storytelling would have served the book. It’s not bereft of these qualities but it could have used more of the author’s human guts on the page. Some readers like their non-fiction to be to-the-point whereas I like to get into an author’s pathos. Just enough, spread thinly throughout a book, to establish the narrator as a character in their own story. Particularly when it comes to the dying, the dead, and those who are left alive. But as I said, it’s a small criticism.
Anyone looking to better understand death couldn’t go wrong by grabbing a copy of Nocturnum’s The Book of the Dead. It has enough meat for the literate adult but isn’t too heavy for young readers. The pages turn easily. The Book of the Dead is grim without being grotesque, sober without being too dry, and serves as light reading on a heavy subject.
You can learn more about E.R. Vernor / Corvis Nocturnum’s many great books here