When We Die

While some potential readers might shun a book about such a somber topic, those who delve in will be rewarded with a wealth of engrossing historical and cultural material about death, dying, and the dead. Have you ever wondered exactly how an Egyptian mummy was prepared? The procedure is described in extensive detail, transcribed from an original account by Herodotus, who observed the process. Also included are descriptions of what was done with the internal organs, what food and drink were typically entombed with the deceased, as well as related issues of tomb robbers and the methods that present-day scientists use to unwrap a mummy.

Cedric Mims’s When We Die: The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death is an extremely well researched and comprehensive study, from the scientific details of the process of death, through the topics of suicide, euthanasia, homicide, disposal of the body by burial, cremation, mummification, and freezing, the use and abuse of corpses for laboratory dissection, transplanting organs, cannibalism, and necrophilia, to the final section on beliefs in an afterlife and the impact of death on survivors.

Mims is a microbiologist by profession, for twenty years a professor at Guys Hospital in England, which accounts for the predominantly British slant, as in the section of disposal of cremation ashes which mostly quotes statistics and describes practices in Britain. However, the majority of the book is historical and worldwide in scope, and the highly readable, layperson-oriented text is peppered with entertaining literary allusions, such as mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatchers” in the section on grave robbing. Since there are no footnotes or specific documentation for the statistics or historical accounts described, this should be considered a popular work, and, perhaps surprisingly, an often entertaining one at that.