Death Shelf

This page includes books on death and death culture i.e. books on cemeteries, death history, cultural differences, etc. It may also include mythological figures and stories sprung out of death culture i.e. vampires, zombies etc.

Dead Mountain | The Dyatlov Pass

17557470 (1) “an unknown compelling force should be considered the cause of the hikers’ deaths” – Lev Ivanov

On January 23, 1959 nine young, experienced hikers who loved adventure went on a passage near the elevations of what was named “Dead Mountain” in the Ural Mountains. The team actually had 10 hikers, one who happened to be forced to return due to his health on February 2nd. On the 12th of February when the team did not return as expected, a rescue team was sent out to retrieve them. When the rescue team found all 9 corpses, they found the bodies in a very odd situation. Some of the bodies were completely stripped down, one of the young women was missing her tongue, and one body was highly radioactive. The team leader’s name was Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and so the name “The Dyatlov Pass” was used when referring to the mystery surrounding the young hikers. I watched a mini-documentary on YouTube as well as one of Caitlin Doughty’s Morbid Mystery videos on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. I picked up this book by Donnie Eichar published in 2013 by First Chronicle Books and I was quite delighted in the amount of passion and research that Eichar conducted on this topic. He left the United States to not only investigate what tangible information can be pieced together about this mystery, but he also wanted to speak to the one ‘survivor’ Yuri Yudin, as well as family and friends of the nine deceased hikers. Eichar pieces together this mystery and almost allows readers to figure it out alone, by presenting the facts.

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Rescue Team finds the tent

Eichar interviews everyone possible, he reads the hikers’ diary which was logged by one of the young women to track their journey, he looks at the forensic analysis, and tries to give as well-rounded a character analysis of each of the hikers from what could have been known about them. Keeping in mind that this was in pre-social media and pre-internet era, and these hikers were only university students, it truly is impressive how much information Eichar was able to piece together. He also had a Russian-English translator with him to help with each one of the interviews, and tangible information. At the end of the book he offers two timelines: the hikers’ timeline as he understands it day by day, and the rescue team’s timeline. He also offers a re-imagining  or “recreation” of February 1, and the early morning hours of February 2nd, using the diary entries, weather reports, and expert scientific opinion on what he believes really happened that night.

There is a lot to unpack from this mystery and I think Eichar does a wonderful job. I think telling too much of what I learned would be, in a way, spoiling the book, if you are interested in reading it. I personally found it scarier than most fictional horror books. Some of the siblings describe the state of the corpses when they saw them, and four corpses were so mutilated they had to be in a closed casket for the funeral procession. If description of such things make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps just watch one of the two videos I mentioned and linked above.

If you like reading Jon Kakauer’s books you would probably enjoy this one (both scared me a lot). It’s journalistic and research-based, but it’s also surrounding a real story with adventure, and nature in it. I thought it was well-written and it kept my attention the whole time. I also appreciated all the attached images, and maps, and the way it was structured. I think as of right now, this is perhaps the most we can ever know about the Dyatlov Pass.

In 2013 an adaptation loosely based on this tragedy (Devil’s Pass) came out featuring a very “science fiction meets horror” take on the story. It really helps to have so many perspectives on this hike and be able to appreciate the horrors of a true story.

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The Life of Death | Book Review

“A woman came to the funeral home looking for a job as a funeral director. When I learned that her dog’s name was Rigor Mortis, I hired her.”

36695230The Life of Death is a memoir written by Ralph R. Rossell who is the owner and funeral director of the Rossell Funeral Home in Flushing (a small town near Flint, Michigan with a population of approximately 8,400 people).

In this work Rossell narrates how he got the family business, and explains terminologies in the death industry from embalmment to caskets, and everything in between. This work is autobiographical and part memoir, part-anecdotes, part non-fiction.

First and foremost I appreciated Rossell’s honesty. Knowing he is a funeral home director I expected him to try and emphasize the goodness of purchasing certain caskets or to hide the ways in which the market profits off of people’s grief. For instance, when it comes to purchasing a casket he writes an entire chapter and in it he says:

“Purchasing a casket can be stressful because it enforces the finality of life…In mortuary school, our casket-sales training course lasted about two minutes. Our instructor walked into the classroom and told us that the way to sell a casket is to go to the casket you want to sell and put your hand on it. Supposedly, this would lead the client to purchase that particular unit; that was it. Thus, the task of training a funeral director in the sale of caskets was left to the middle man: the casket salesman.”

For me personally, this way of laying out facts even if they are ‘secrets of the trade’ or ‘gimmicks’ makes me respect the writer, because I can see that he is not trying to hide anything or convince people that certain companies are better than others, or that one should be obliged to embalm etc. I refrained from looking at what his funeral home offers in terms of eco-friendly services, or options, because as a book reviewer I want to look at this work as literature and judge it only as such.

Aside from the above-mentioned, the main contents of the book brings forward something new, and I enjoyed it immensely: the community. This book is about people. Each short chapter/section focuses on a different anecdote from the 45 years Rossell has worked in the industry. He highlights the humour that can be extracted from concentrated time spent with grieving people in a stressful time. Reading this book felt like I was observing different behaviours and takes on grief, and like I was present to many funerals, which was incredibly humbling and pleasant. The ‘pleasant’ part is a personal investment in the topic, and perhaps other readers will have a different experience. I don’t want to say he puts the “fun” in “funeral” but…kind of. To clarify, he is by no means at any point disrespectful. Rossell acknowledges many times how troubling a time it is when someone passes, and how devastating it is to the remaining living people, but each funeral brings its own story. Sometimes the people don’t fit in the coffin, sometimes no one shows up, sometimes there are very strange requests made, by both the living and the dead. Each of these stories is short, and Rossell extracted the main points of what made them memorable, which makes this book a great read. As a reader I was also able to feel the small-town lifestyle, and the spirit of the small Flushing community.

I read many books on death, funerals, and the funeral industry in the last few years, but this is the first one that uses anecdotal evidence to bring forward the experience of being present at a funeral, and how the people in a small community deal with death. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with the humour levels given the heaviness of the topic. I think when you are in this industry, you simply must have a great sense of humour, or at least be able to see it through the darkness in order to make it out yourself. I received an eARC from the publisher on Netgalley, but I am certainly going to get a hard copy of this book. I will leave you with Rossell’s own concluding words:

“And remember I am the last to let you down”

Mary Ann Cotton — Dark Angel

31290822I recently got immersed in the world of Mary Ann Cotton, branded as “Britain’s first female serial killer.” Although Cotton being “the first” is disputed as there might have been many others before her, she is fascinating nonetheless. Martin Connolly wrote a short booklet on the town he lived in, titled The Potted History of West Auckland. After reading his work, many requested that he write a book about Mary Ann Cotton. Who was she? What do we know about her? Connolly decided to go to all of the possible sources to find out as much information as he can on Mary Ann Cotton. Connolly writes in the introduction:

“When I had brought together all my material and thoughts, I then turned to see what books on Mary Ann Cotton were being recommended. In this, two stood out, Mary Annn Cotton –Her Story and Trial by Arthur Appleton and Mary Ann cotton Dead, But not Forgotten by Tony Whitehead. Arthur’s account has some factual and date errors, but was a good read. It was on reading tony Whitehead’s book that I had a moment of wishing I had started with that particular book. In it, he had amassed a large number of images of birth, death and baptismal records. It would have saved me a great deal of time, energy and money.”

What I enjoy about Connolly’s book is that he frames the structure of Mary Ann Cotton’s life chronologically and in each sequence he tells us what we can know from the facts without interference. He doesn’t make assumptions or tell us what to believe. He collected so many pictures, certificates, and documents simply presenting them to us as images with a brief explanation of where he acquired them. After laying down the entirety of Cotton’s documented life, he presents to us her trial, documents from the trial, letters to and from Mary Ann Cotton whilst she was in jail, and accounts of the day she was hanged with all the details (including how long her body convulsed upon being hanged). After, Connolly tells us who survived Mary Ann Cotton (from people she knew and lived with), and subsequent rural stories that circulated about potential ghost sightings of Cotton. She entered English folklore for quite some time. He also gathered medical recordings of how the doctor examined the corpses to indicate that it was in fact Arsenic poisoning—which was used as ‘proof’ of her guilt. Connolly even covers a brief biography of all the men and women involved in her trial, doctor supporting evidence, and police officers involved in her arrest.arsenic

On one hand I liked being presented with facts/proof around Mary Ann Cotton’s life without biographer interference or flowery language. On the other hand, I found this work lacking in setting the atmosphere. Although Connolly makes a brief mention at the beginning that she came from a mining village with low wages, and death was aplenty; he didn’t quite set the atmosphere of the time. He jumps from one section of her life to the next without much more introduction. I would have appreciated a sensory experience, an induction into this Victorian life to try and understand. Connolly concludes with:

“was she guilty of murders? I struggle to answer this question. It would be anachronistic to try and look at the situation with a modern mind. In that period, many things were black and white in legal terms…to judge her then is difficult…I suppose I arrive at a place where I would bring in the Scottish legal judgment of ‘not proven.’”

That is a pretty dark note to end on (considering the woman was hanged).

DarkAngel_MasterpieceI read the book at the same time as watching the PBS three-episode miniseries called Dark Angel featuring Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton. The show helped me with what the book was lacking which was atmosphere. The imagery, and the details in costumes and setting really put things in perspective.

What the show focused more on was Cotton’s seduction abilities. They presented her sexuality as being far more overt than any Victorian character I’ve encountered thus far, which made me think they appropriated a slightly modern take. The book tells us to assume she was at least charming because she managed to lock down four husbands but her seductive abilities weren’t notorious. Something missing from the show though, was the ambiguity and potential innocence that Connolly presented to us in the book. In the television program they pretty much show her carrying spoon-fulls of Arsenic into everyone’s tea, including her four husbands, lover, several step-children, her mother, and best friend. If you ‘judge’ her based on the show you ‘know’ she murdered everyone, whereas if you look at the documents and transcripts of what we actually can know….it’s pretty ambiguous, and certainly doesn’t make the case for a death penalty.

Both the book and miniseries kind of gloss over something kind of important. Mary Ann Cotton gave birth to 13 children, 11 of which died. I recently read The Light Between Oceans showing how much damage can be done to a woman’s psyche after losing a single living child, or even experience a miscarriage. To have lost eleven children she gave birth to is so much proof to me that Cotton was certainly not mentally stable. Postpartum depression alone will mess you up, let alone burying so many children of your own. The show and book gloss over it as if it was no big deal, as if it’s to be expected of the time; but even in the Victorian period the death of a child was not so simple. We have records of how much Dickens, and Darwin grieved over the loss of a single child (as fathers). Skipping over this concept to me, is kind of missing the point. I think when people read books on “serial killers” they are intrigued by character and the how they got to be that way. Skipping over the grieving process, and the bodily damage from each pregnancy and subsequent burial of tiny bodies completely hides from the readers and audience what messed this woman up so much (IF she was guilty at all). The presentation of economic circumstances of women at the time and their dependency on men really placed a contemporary feminist angle of how difficult it must have been to lack autonomy and how desperate things can really get.

So if you embark on this grim adventure I recommend reading something about the Victorian period first, and perhaps read the book alongside watching the miniseries so you have a full picture of Mary Ann Cotton. I really did enjoy this narrative altogether. The book is published by Pen and Sword, and the miniseries by PBS.

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Ah, now I get that line from Chicago

Lore by Aaron Mahnke | Review

LORE

I’ve been trying to find ways to bring LORE into conversation, and on this blog several times without deviating from my main topic, unsure how, and then the book came out!  For anyone who doesn’t know the exact content of this “LORE” I will go into detail in the Book Review section. But first, I want to introduce you to all the formats LORE comes in. I’ve officially consumed LORE in every format.

  1. The Podcast

lore-logo-lightFor the month of October I binge-listened to the entire LORE Podcast (still ongoing) and caught up to the latest one. My new job allows for the listening of podcasts and audio books, so Aaron Mahnke has been my “coworker” for the last two months. Needless to say, I loved it. Every episode features a different macabre topic in which Mahnke weaves together several narratives that have been historically recorded and fit the topic. He does an excellent job, and the literary allusions, and pop-culture references are on point. One of the many reasons I adore this project is that it’s highly inter-textual.

LPJ1200S PSDThe podcast won best history podcast last year. The podcast is accompanied by music throughout and occasional commercials. New episodes are released every two weeks on Mondays. If you’re like me and late to the party just be happy. It’s a GOOD party, and you get to binge, which is awesome! The musical accompaniment is by Chad Lawson, who will soon release an album featuring the songs from LORE called A Grave Mistake. 

2. The TV Show

MV5BMjA3ODQwNzM0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY5MTczMzI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Just as I was deep mid-podcast, on October 15, Amazon Prime Video released Season 1 of LORE which features six of the most chilling episodes. It was so much scarier seeing these tales performed with live people and seeing the settings (most are set in times different from our own). The costumes and settings really gave another dimension to these little histories. The direction of this season was excellent. The music, mixed with live demonstrations of some of these horrific things, made me far more afraid than I thought I would be (especially since I knew from the podcast how they end). Although I found some criticisms online where people dislike that Mahnke’s voice narrates throughout the show, I found his voice to be comforting when things got scary. He was the familiar constant, and I needed that.

3. The Audiobook

LOREThis was actually my favourite format of the four, which I’ll explain at length below. It maintains the ‘cleanliness’ of the book, but it also has Mahnke’s voice and some musical effects which I loved from the Podcast. I got this from Audible. Although I completely understand why in the podcasts people often take requests for placing ads throughout, it can be a little annoying while listening, but with the audio-book, it was commercial-free and the transitions between topics were so smooth. This audio-book is a reading of the book below.

 

4. LORE: Monstrous Creatures | Book Review

images (1)This book is made of the transcripts from the LORE Podcast mentioned above and edited in such a way that results in a very smooth transition from one tale to the next. The book itself is a mere fraction of what is to be a longer series, published by Del Rey. The second book Wicked Mortals is set for release in May of 2018 and the third book has been announced, but the cover has not been revealed.

The book cover and the accompanying illustrations are made by M.S. Corley whose contribution to this work gives LORE yet another layer of talent and atmosphere. His illustrations are so morbid and simultaneously whimsical. I think the two choices for colors: the red and black, relate to the section in the book “Doing Tricks, Shifting Shapes” where Mahnke writes:

“Black and red, for a very long time, were considered bad colors, so if you wanted to describe something as evil, of course it was black or red or both.” (Mahnke, 76)

The content of LORE is made up of vignettes and separate accounts of mysterious sightings, happenings, or experiments done by humans. The range is anywhere from the supernatural to the scientific. All of them are rooted in real recordings and stories, even if at times humans just ‘claimed’ to have seen or done something. Mahnke reminds us with this work, that not too long ago oral testimony is all we really had, and that a lot of people were highly superstitious.

The way he captures these stories is in the same spirit of the Grimm Brothers. He collected and compiled tales of the macabre, but roots each firmly in historical context. I found it very useful to understand why and how certain practices were done in a particular time period. Mahnke references historical figures, other works of literature, and the sources from which one can find the details of each of these records. What I found most exciting is that he brings together stories from all over the world. We are globally united in our  fear of the unknown, death, and the unexplained and Mahnke forces readers (and listeners) to look at that aspect of our human nature. He writes:

“We fear death because it means the loss of control, the loss of purpose and freedom. Death, in the eyes of many people, robs us of our identity and replaces it with finality.”

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Mahnke drawn by Corley

At the 200-year-anniversary of the Brothers Grimm, Harvard professor Maria Tatar—expert on folklore and fairy tales— mentioned that the reason fairy tales are so deeply ingrained in our society and why we love them so much is because they’ve been told and retold so many times that all the boring bits have been left out. What we get now is the final product of a story that has been edited through generations. I think Mahnke’s work captures the same effect through the refining of folklore, and the editing process that these tales have experienced simply by being tested in the format of a Podcast prior to being committed to text. Of course the stories and their content prior to Mahnke’s work on them were refined through oral storytelling. Mahnke sometimes even extends the use of ‘lore’ or ‘folklore’ and appropriates it to other unifying communal activities like sports and how we all share a common language like the “Curse of the Bambino” in baseball folklore for example. Mahnke constantly reminds us of the power of stories:

“no realm holds more explanation for the unexplainable than folklore” (65)

“Given enough time, story–like water–will leave its mark and transform a place.” (127)

I don’t know if I’ve convinced you to give LORE a try if you haven’t, or to experience it in at least one of its formats, but clearly I love it! No one asked me to write a review, this is just me writing about my love for this whole production, because in trying to explain what I love about it, I understand myself better, and what I enjoy about this kind of storytelling. An additional Lore-related video I strongly enjoyed was Aaron Mahnke’s speech here, on how he started out, and what brought LORE to the phenomenon it is today. If you have enjoyed LORE and want to try Mahnke’s other works, here are some of this other works:

Also, this is the official link to all things LORE.

Author Spotlight: Caitlin Doughty

 “The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” – The Order of the Good Death

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“The Funeral of Shelley” by Louis Édouard Fournier

Caitlin Doughty is one of the most wonderful women I stumbled upon on YouTube, and I am so glad I did. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many encounters with death. Born and raised in Romania, open casket funerals and three-day wakes in the home are followed by so many practices that I can say I was very much involved with the handling of many human corpses from death to burial. Washing the corpse, preparing food and serving it to more than half the town, kissing the corpse’s forehead, guarding it night and day for three days, and covering all the mirrors in the house in a black shroud for the whole time the corpse is in the house were all perfectly normal requests in rural Romania. Most importantly, death was (and is) very much a part of daily conversation. In the West however, bodies are hidden and even worse: death is hardly discussed. I constantly feel like a morbid weirdo (in Canada) talking about something that had been a huge part of my childhood and the many ways in which it confronted me to question my life, and prepare for my inevitable death. When I encountered Caitlin Doughty on YouTube it was like meeting a long-lost friend.

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Caitlin Doughty

Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii and after witnessing a death at the age of eight she became fascinated with the topic. She studied the medieval period at University, and after attending mortuary school, apprenticed at a crematory in Los Angeles. Becoming more and more familiar with the practices of embalming, cremation, and funeral practices in America, Doughty began to notice some red flags regarding the funeral industry. Funeral home directors taking advantage of mourning family members by pushing upon them caskets worth thousands of dollars (all to make money of course, and so the people cutting the grass don’t have to go over uneven ground), pushing embalming practices, as well as presenting these topics in a light that make the remaining family members believe it is legally enforced. Imbuing bodies with toxic chemicals, and incorporating them in non-biodegradable caskets have damaging consequences for the environment. In addition, taking bodies away and hiding them from the moment of death hardly allows the family to process the death of a loved one. Lastly, people disengaged from discussion about and around death live in a constant dread. Thinking of human remains boxed in a rigid casket six feet under as a possibility (at least for me) is really quite frightening.

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Doughty’s first book

When I heard that one could be buried in a pod in fetal position organically decomposing beneath a tree–it was the first time I got excited about my death (weird to say out loud). Just the thought that with my body I could nourish the Earth, and live in a different form in a ‘Sacred Forest’ makes me happy. But not just me, ‘many’ according to Caitlin want to become trees and have an organic death in different forms. She gave two TED Talks focusing on The Corpses that Changed My Life (which in text format–with far more details–became Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory) and most recently: A Burial Practice that Nourishes the Planet which is a summary of what she now encourages: a natural burial. Caitlin herself repeats that what she is suggesting is not ‘her idea,’ ‘new,’ or ‘an invention’ because it’s a practice that has been done in different forms all over the world, and in history. She now works on advocating for an environmentally friendly burial, a burial practice that respects the wishes of the dead person, and most importantly on educating the public about their options, their rights, and the opportunities available. Doughty became the founder of The Order of the Good Death.  If you click on the title you can find more about it from the website itself, run by a large team advocating for educating the public on ‘the good death.’ There are links there that can lead you to other books written on topics like ‘death,’ or ‘ghosts’ which are academic in nature. Caitlin’s YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician” is absolute gold! In videos ranging from 4-10 minutes Doughty tackles topics like “What happened to the dead bodies on Everest?” “How is Vladimir Lenin’s Body Preserved?” or “What’s the deal with La Pascualita?” — seriously I binge-watched 5 years of YouTube in a week.

One of my favourite lines in her book is this:

“In many ways, women are death’s natural companions. Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but a death. Samuel Beckett wrote that women “give birth astride of a grave.” Mother Nature is indeed a real mother, creating and destroying in a constant loop.”

511i6HQoG+L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The support from viewers of her work for The Order of the Good Death on Patreon, and encouragement from a large number of people reading her first book, motivated Doughty to travel to several countries, and some American States to learn about their burial practices–Indonesia, Bolivia, and California among them. On October 3rd of 2017 her book From Here to Eternity was published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this book, Doughty dedicates a chapter to a different location and examines how the role of death fits into the larger conversation, how burial practices are carried through, and how/what we can learn from them.

The book is accompanied by wonderful illustrations executed to perfection by Landis Blair. His artwork is dark and highly atmospheric. Blair himself is a member of The Order of the Good Death. 

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Illustration by Landis Blair

If you are fortunate enough to live in the United States, Doughty will be going on a book tour very soon, and the dates have been listed HERE. If you are near one of them I highly encourage you to go. I must emphasize that no one asked me to review this book or promote Doughty, this is what I would genuinely recommend, and what I genuinely enjoy/believe in. I am grateful that people like Doughty exist. I highly recommend her books, her YouTube channel, and her message.

I will close off as Doughty always does on her channel:

“and remember: you WILL die.”