Book Review: “The Whole Death Catalog”

An appropriate title for Dia de los Muertos, ¿no?

“The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End” by Harold Schechter is sort of a tour of all things death, from attitudes toward death in our culture and others, to the history of cemeteries, to the best death-themed poems of all time. Schechter is the author of several books (most of which have the words “The Shocking True Story” in their titles), so you can see where his sensibilities lie. Far from being depressing, Schechter’s dry humor infuses every sentence, making this one of the funniest books about death since Mary Roach’s “Stiff.” You’ll find all kinds of useful information, such as how to tell the difference between a coffin and a casket, what was the proper attire for a Victorian widow, and how to make a mummy.

The only thing I disliked about this book was that it seemed sort of thrown together. The Epic of Gilgamesh is mentioned several times, and Schechter explains what it is each time. Some of his chapters promise more than they deliver, instead referring you to another book or books. Sometimes he over-relies on the work of others (properly cited, of course); he reprints several poems and “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin.

Taken altogether, despite a few flaws, TWDC is interesting, informative, and remarkably entertaining.

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