Encyclopedia of the End: Mysterious Death in Fact, Fancy, Folklore and More
By Deborah Noyes
In her new book, Deborah Noyes braves the grim reaper to demystify death in an alphabetically-listed banquet of facts, folklore, science and history. The scientifically inclined will be intrigued by the process of rigor mortis, postmortem and near-death experience, to name just a few. The history buff will find fascinating stories of 19th century body snatchers, death masks, death portraits, and tales of Houdini convening with the spirit world. Looking for a lighter fair at the death banquet? Skip to the letter G and read about goths, ghosts and graveyards. Looking for something meatier? Noyes includes the different cultural viewpoints on death in a respectful, but never preachy tone. Best of all, each topic includes just the right amount of details to keep inquisitive readers of the dead (or undead) engrossed for weeks.
I have to confess that I was thoroughly indoctrinated into the Catholic religion at a young age with the Catholic School, strict Catholic parents, and 9 yards of Catholic guilt and I am not about to change my opinion of what happens after you “bite the dust.” But I do wish my religious upbringing had been less narrow on the topic of death. I can remember very distinctively a Jewish friend’s dad dieing when I was young and not understanding her process of mourning. (Noyes lists Shiva under S). I couldn't understand why her mirrors were covered. It made me uncomfortable when I should have been focused less on my own comfort level and more on comforting my friend.
I understand why my parents didn’t discuss death. Undeniably, no one likes to talk about death. We even avoid saying the actual word. Under the letter E, Noyes lists some of the popular euphemisms for death including “passed on”, “kicked the bucket”, and my personal favorite – “pushing up daisies”. We certainly don’t need euphemisms for discussing birth and you will find far more books on pregnancy and the birth of a new baby. Why are we so well-educated on how life starts, but procrastinate talking about death until our child’s pet dies or even worse a beloved family member? Why not talk about dying BEFORE it happens?
From A to Z, Noyes resists the temptation to impart her own beliefs. (You can see from the above that I could not resist the same temptation.) Her impartiality is what really honors the dearly departed. Only in the introduction do we get a glimpse into how the author began her research when she writes, “Life matters because it’s on loan.”
I personally found Noyes brave approach to unmasking death illustrated perfectly by the epitaph she found on an 1813 grave stone:
‘Lie still sweet babe & take thy rest
God call’d you home He thought it best ‘
This month, one lucky newsletter subscriber will win Encyclopedia of the End by Deborah Noyes. If you are not a newsletter subscriber, sign up here. The winner will be announced on Monday. The newsletter is going out soon...promise. This month I am featuring the most scandalous hats throughout history. And stay tuned for next week when I will be featuring the most famous maker of the dead – The life of Marie Tussaud
Enjoy your day on loan!