cover image Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts

Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts

Penny Colman, Penny Coleman. Henry Holt & Company, $22.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-5066-0

Few readers will be able to put down Colman's (Rosie the Riveter) impeccably researched history of how cultures from ancient times to modern times honor (or dishonor) their dead. Using as a touchstone an example from her own life (the death of her great-aunt's husband, Willi Matousek), she traces the aftermath of death, from the survivors' initial reaction (""how do you know [he's dead]?""), to the funeral or burial rite to the burial (or disposal) of the body itself. Colman manages to intertwine artlessly personal anecdotes alongside captivating facts from ancient history (e.g., in 212 B.C.E., the first emperor of China demanded the construction of a funeral vault that required thousands of workers who were then entombed alive to ensure they would not reveal the secret passageways to grave robbers) to today's information highway (e.g., on an Internet memorial park, plots cost $7-$15 and include e-mail tributes, photographs and recordings of the dead person's voice). Major historical events demonstrate her points, too: the high casualty rate during the Civil War drove the need to embalm soldiers so they could be shipped home. Well chosen black-and-white photographs range from the contemporary (a memorial mural in the South Bronx) to a print commemorating the victims of the Plague of 1665. By no means constructed of melancholy alone, the volume also includes moments of humor and inspiration. This is a book readers will pore over, not only for the wealth of absorbing information, but because Colman, in considering death on a global scale, allows readers to view it as a universal experience that connects them to others. Ages 9-up. (Oct.)