Last Rites – Todd Harra

Who knew reading about death could be so much fun?!

I absolutely loved this book. I learned so many fascinating things about the dismal arts. How Lincoln’s death changed traditions relating to flower tributes and embalming. What preceded the shift from inhumation to cremation. How mourning has changed over time. The privatisation of funerals. Mourning gloves. Mourning gifts. Mourning jewellery. How war brought about “practical” mourning. Hearse design. Post-mortem photographs. The “coffin-torpedo”. Taphephobia. This book covers so much and explores everything in a way that made me want to keep delving deeper.

I discovered that all of the books I read about Ancient Egyptians as a child omitted some things. Like the mythology of the five children of Nut (the goddess of night). It’s the decidedly messed up story of the first mummy. Or how, according to Herodotus, when a “beautiful woman or the wife of a wealthy man” died, their body was left to decompose for three of four days before summoning the kher-heb (high priest) … to prevent necrophilia.

I decided that while I could see myself as a thanatologist, I won’t be applying for any dissector or beadle positions any time soon. The job of a dissector in Ancient Egypt was to make the incision for evisceration but as soon as they were done they’d be chased by their coworkers and stoned because they’d defiled the body. Beadles were routinely beaten by family members of the deceased as they went about their job of retrieving the bodies of hanged criminals so barber surgeons could dissect them.

I had to look up the Last Things website, where designer Chuck Lakin provides free blueprints for six coffins you can build yourself. Two of the six can be used as furniture while your heart is still beating. One is a bookcase coffin!!!

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started this book. Learning about death rituals and how they’ve changed over time sounded really interesting but I wondered if the delivery would be dry and boring. It was anything but.

This book took me a lot longer to read than I’d anticipated because I kept stopping when I found something I couldn’t keep to myself so I could read it to whoever was nearby.

I never expected to be in a position to say ‘I read the most wonderful book about death’, but here we are. I read the most wonderful book about death!

Memento mori

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Sounds True for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Why do we embalm the deceased? Why are funerals so expensive? Is there a reason coffins are shaped the way they are? When – and why – did we start viewing the deceased? Ceremonies for honoring the departed are crucial parts of our lives, but few people know where our traditional practices come from – and what they reveal about our history, culture, and beliefs about death. In Last Rites, author Todd Harra takes you on a fascinating exploration of American funeral practices – examining where they came from, what they mean, and how they are still evolving.

Our conventions around death, burial, and remembrance have undergone many great transitions – sometimes due to technology, respect for tradition, shifting sensibilities, or even to thwart grave robbers. Here you’ll explore: 

• Influences for American rituals – from medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, and even ancient Egypt
• When mourning fell out of fashion – and how George Washington’s passing brought it back
• Abraham Lincoln’s landmark funeral and its widespread impact
• Flowers, liquor, mourning gifts, and caskets – the reasons behind our grieving customs
• Unknown soldiers – how warfare influenced funeral and bereavement practices … and vice versa 
• How growing populations, religion, inventions, and media have changed and continue to shape our traditions
• The future of our death rites – mushroom suits, green burial, body donation, flameless cremation, home funerals, and more

The rich story of the American funeral is one of constant evolution. Whether you’re planning a funeral service or are simply intrigued by the meaning behind American burial practices, Last Rites is an informative and compelling exploration of the history – and future – of the ceremonies we use to say farewell to those who have departed this world.

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