Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

Encyclopedia of Death and Dying

Eva Pocs

Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Edited by Glennys Howarth and Oliver Leaman. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. 534 pp. B/W illus. 100.00 [pounds sterling] (hbk). ISBN 0-415-18825-3

This book appears at a time when the interest of both the public and the disciplines represented in the volume are turning increasingly to questions of death and dying, alongside a renewed interest in the study of religion, new religions, and esoterica. This volume, which attempts to offer something to both the specialist and the educated layman, will be received with interest by both. Such an undertaking has to overcome several difficulties. One of them is length: in the case of such a wide-ranging topic it is impossible to select the most important items objectively within a length of 534 pages. Religious studies, psychology, medical science, folklore, art history, literature, musicology, and many other disciplines have something distinctive and new to say about the subject, while the target audience, the cultivated layman, is most interested in those questions of death and dying that most affect everyday life. Besides the specifically disciplinary questions, ample space has to be dedicated to the thanatology of everyday life: the relationship to death, palliative care, the hospice movement, techniques of coping with death and mourning, the historically changing concepts of good and bad death, various forms of violent death and vengeance. All these layers can be found in this encyclopaedia.

Thanks to the wide array of experts brought together from a variety of fields, the main strength of the volume is its multifacetedness. Besides articles on the practical, everyday aspects of thanatology, most of the book is taken up by the medical and health aspects of death (e.g., questions of the causes of death, deadly diseases, epidemics), the psychology of death and dying, the psychology of religion (subjective psychological processes, communication with the dead, spiritual healing, spiritualism and other related sects and movements), and finally the area of cultural history, ethnography, and ethnology. Questions of the culture of death are primarily limited to European Christianity and only go beyond this circle in the case of a few central questions about the ethnology of religion. The ethnographic, folklore articles provide a description of European (primarily English) death rituals, supplemented by a few summary articles (e.g., “Ceremonies”) that provide an overview of the rituals of various peoples and eras.

At the centre of the description of European rites and beliefs are the traditions of folk culture (e.g., laying out, mourning, unbaptised, stillborn, etc.), along with the relevant dogmas and liturgical prescriptions of Christianity. All this is rounded out by articles on cultural history (e.g., the story of death, ars moriendi, danse macabre) and Christian religious history (e.g., dying saints and martyrs). Cemeteries, tombs, and mausoleums are described from the point of view of art history and archaeology. Under the heading “art history” we also find a historical overview of the art of death.

The question of burial methods appears as one of the key problems of archaeology and the ethnology of religion. The mythological material and the spirit world of European folklore (e.g., ghosts, vampires, or supernatural death messengers) and gods and myths of death appear in this context too. The most important theoretical framework is provided by detailed articles discussing basic religious ethnological concepts: rites of passage, sacrifice, mourning, ancestors, animism, etc. Separate entries discuss the works of some leading researchers relating to death (van Gennep, Robert Hertz, Victor Turner, etc.) The cultural background also includes death-related aspects of literature, art and music.

One of the dilemmas of encyclopaedia editors can be the problem of the general and the particular; that is to say, what should be presented as detailed, individual case studies. Here this problem appears in the choices made about which countries should be presented individually. The somewhat arbitrary choice here fell on English-speaking countries and a few other “big” countries (such as Russia). To some degree the index redresses the balance, since at least in the form of references many countries of the world appear from Egypt to Serbia. Naturally, the group of authors hailing from many different directions could not create a very coherent work, and in places the encyclopaedia is lopsided, with some of the choices seeming arbitrary. However, this general problem of the volume is enlivened by a few apparently illogical digressions and unclassifiable curiosities (e.g., the embalming of holy animals, famous murderers and suicides).

This is a successful encyclopaedia that contains a few subjective choices and at times even a few errors, but is able to answer common questions in an efficient and professional manner in its thanatological articles. Researchers of death will find the volume informative on the most important research questions of the various fields studying death; this is also served by the carefully selected bibliographies (and further reading). The rich and informative illustrations also supplement well the material presented in the text.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group