Loren's Reviews > Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial

Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts by Penny Colman
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May 10, 11

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bookshelves: cemetery-books, morbid-books
Read in January, 2000

Although this book is a Junior Library Guild Selection—meaning that the text is written at a level suitable for children—the chapter headings seemed intriguing (Defining Death, Understanding Death, What Happens to Corpses, How to Contain the Remains, Where Corpses End Up). In her preface, though, Colman wrote of attempting to avoid the queasiness with which a reader might approach discussions of death. That was a warning to me. I want the dirt on death: the facts, the history, and lots of pictures.

The illustrations in this book are worth the price of admission. A photo from the Library of Congress depicts a surgeon embalming a solider during the Civil War. Another from the same source shows a Native American scaffold burial in 1912. Colman photographed a grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which is covered in seashells, “a tradition brought to America by enslaved Africans.” One page of photos traces the development of tombstone adornment in the U.S. A more recent grave sports two parking meters, both permanently set to read “Expired.” The most beautiful photographs in the book come from the ossuary near Kutná Hora in Czechoslovakia where human bones are used to create an enormous chandelier and a family crest. Stuff like that is more of a guidebook to me than a reference work.

Colman spends too much time for my taste on deaths in her experience, from her beloved Grammie to her great uncle Willi. Still, she does pass on some knowledge about death that I was unaware of. The Egyptians originally used a type of stone in their coffins that they believed had the power to eat flesh, hence the term sarcophagi, “flesh-eating.” The use of “potter’s field” to refer to a graveyard for paupers traces back to a field near Jerusalem where potters dug clay. The Jewish High Priests purchased it with the 30 pieces of silver returned by Judas. The ground was used to bury strangers. During the French Revolution, lead coffins were unearthed and melted down for bullets. A tree grows behind Harriet Tubman’s grave, planted due to a tradition brought here by Africans. They believed that if the tree thrived, the soul must be thriving also. Colman discusses methods for outwitting premature burial and the ages at which children accept the finality of death.

Unfortunately, large passages of this book are quoted directly from How We Die, Death to Dust and other references. It felt to me as if Colman had rushed to finish the book, not taking time to research things in person. It made me wonder why I wasn’t reading Death to Dust itself, instead of this abridged version.

However, as a book to introduce children to the fascination death holds, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts is harmless. One of my favorite passages is a quote from George Bernard Shaw about his awe at watching his mother’s cremation: “The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet-colored flame, smokeless and eager … and my mother became that beautiful fire.” If kids don’t fall in love with death after that, there’s no use in trying.

This review comes from Morbid Curiosity #3.
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