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.

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”

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


“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.


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.


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. 


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.”