When We Die

Cedric A. Mims, Author, Mims, Author
Cedric A. Mims, Author, Mims, Author St. Martin's Press $25.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-312-20050-3
Paperback - 384 pages - 978-0-312-26411-6
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Nearly encyclopedic in scope, this superb investigation of death in its medical, social, cultural and spiritual aspects will serve as a consciousness-raising tool for anyone who wants to come to terms with the inevitability of his or her eventual demise. Mims, a microbiologist and former professor at Guys Hospital in London, crams an enormous wealth of information into his concise yet meaningful coverage of a multitude of topics: cemeteries, ghosts, murder, capital punishment, crucifixion, religious relics, infanticide, abortion, mass extinctions of species and so forth. He digs up mind-boggling facts and figures: Every hour, 80-100 people commit suicide; auto safety researchers in Germany use corpses in car-crash tests; 43% of all deaths in the developing world result from largely curable infectious or parasitic diseases. Yet this is no mere compendium of data, thanks to Mims's lively writing style, impressive scholarship and unusually matter-of-fact approach. His survey of funeral rituals--from the austere, cheap nocturnal rites of the Puritans to the Dyaks of Borneo, who regaled a dead chief with food and drink--treats burial practices as a mirror of religious, social and economic history. He gives a blow-by-blow account of the aging process, explains death as nature's strategy to ensure evolutionary change and unravels the ethical, legal and medical issues surrounding euthanasia and organ transplants. Chapters on the exposure and cremation of corpses, cannibalism, medical cadavers and mummification (in Egypt, Peru, the Canary Islands) may prove unsettling for some, yet they are written with consummate tact and a broad historical perspective. Although Mims accepts death as permanent personal extinction, he surveys beliefs in an afterlife as well as near-death experiences. This remarkable tome is one of the best introductions available to a difficult topic. Eight pages of b&w photos. (Feb.)
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