Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Life of Death

The Life of Death: The Bare Bones of UndertakingThe Life of Death: The Bare Bones of Undertaking by Ralph R. Rossell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ralph Rossell owns the only funeral home in the little town where I grew up. He’s handled the funerals for my grandparents. I went with my mom to Rossell’s to pick out a casket for my great aunt. I’m sure my parents have an arrangement with him.

When my brother died suddenly at the age of 36, Rossell’s funeral home asked for a photo of him so the cosmetologist could make him look good for the viewing. Somewhere along the line, someone slicked his curly red hair down. My mom threw a fit, the funeral home went into gear, and somebody curled all his thinning hair into ringlets. I thought it looked awful, but then my brother was dead and nothing was going to make me feel better about that. My mom was satisfied. That was enough.

I read Ralph’s book half in dread that the story would come up amidst all his other reminiscences of growing up with and burying the people in my hometown. It didn’t, but I recognized other people I’ve known here. I marvel at the boldness of writing this book — telling these stories — but I will treasure it. It documents the town remarkably well.

I’m vastly disappointed that I wasn’t in high school when the Home Ec teacher was taking the kids to tour the funeral home. My life might have run on a different path. Oh, well.

If you didn’t grow up in small-town Michigan but are interested in what it’s like to run a family-owned funeral home, the book paints a clear picture. There’s some fairly gruesome stuff amongst the folksy memories. The book has no literary pretensions, like Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. Because of that, I enjoyed it more.

You can order your own copy from Amazon: https://amzn.to/2LdwLXH

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Digging Up the Dead

Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American ReburialsDigging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials by Michael Kammen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book more than I did. It is written in a very dry way, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that the author is a professor emeritus at Cornell. Bess Lovejoy’s Rest in Pieces is a much more fun text on the same subject, although both books don’t really cover the same ground.

This book is exhaustive when it comes to American war heroes who were recovered from forgotten graves and reburied with more attention. In fact, if the Revolutionary War fascinates you, you will appreciate the “Siting and Reciting of Patriotism” chapter.

I wish the chapter on “Problematic Graves” had been longer. I hadn’t considered the tourist value of famous people’s graves beyond Jim Morrison and Hollywood Forever, so I was fascinated by the process of moving gravesites to be more accessible, along with the struggles cities went to in order to hang on to their favored sons.

In fact, the book is thick with dead white men. I wish the author had cast a wider net. I was excited when the African Burial Ground in Manhattan was mentioned. Jimi Hendrix could have been, too, or Martin Luther King Jr. or Hattie McDaniel (who wasn’t moved, in the end). The graves removed from Manzanar might have rated some attention, or the Chinese history of moving the bones back home during the Gold Rush…

I suppose it’s telling that the blurbs on the book come from historians, not from cemetery aficionados.

You can order your own copy of the book from Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.