The Whole Death Catalog

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  • Edition: Original
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-06-02
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
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In the tradition of the bestselling work "Stiff," a pop culture guru and author of "The Serial Killer Files" offers an all-inclusive, irreverent, and always lively look at the state of death. bw photos throughout.

Author Biography

Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, the City University of New York. He is widely celebrated for both fiction and true-crime writing, including The Devil's Gentleman and The Serial Killer Files. He lives in Brooklyn and Mattituck, Long Island, with his wife, the poet Kimiko Hahn.


Chapter One


Can’t Live with It, Can’t Live Without It   
Is Death Necessary?  

Of all the traits that distinguish human beings from other animals—language, toolmaking, the urge to buy other people’s unwanted stuff on eBay—perhaps the most fundamental is our awareness of our own inevitable deaths. To be sure, animals possess powerful survival instincts and do their best to avoid getting killed. But (so far as we know) they have no conscious knowledge of how little time they have here on earth. They go through life blissfully unaware that each passing day is bringing them closer and closer to the end.  

Humans, on the other hand—particularly as we grow older—are all too keenly aware of how fleeting life is. On the plus side, this can add flavor and poignancy to our existence, making us savor the lovely and precious things in life (as the poet Wallace Stevens says, “Death is the mother of beauty”). But it also burdens us with a heavy load of anxiety and plagues us with the question “Why do we have to die at all?”  

From time immemorial, humans have grappled with this mystery. Tribal myths from around the world offer a host of colorful explanations. According to one African tale, when the first humans pleaded with God to stop death, he complied with their wishes, but only on one condition: to prevent the world from becoming too crowded, there would be no more births. Unwilling to endure life without children, the people quickly begged God to return death to them.  

In an Indonesian myth, death came into the world when God offered the first man and woman a choice between two gifts: a stone and a banana. Seeing no use for the stone, the pair chose the enticing fruit. At that instant, a voice thundered down from heaven: “Because you have chosen the banana, your life shall be like its life. When the banana tree has offspring, the parent stem dies. So shall you die and your children shall step into your place. Had you chosen the stone, your life would have been like its life, changeless and immortal.”  

And then there is the Australian Aboriginal myth recorded by the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt. According to this story, two traveling companions named Moon and Djarbo suddenly fall mortally ill. Moon has a plan to revive them, but Djarbo—believing that Moon’s idea is a trick—rebuffs his friend’s help and soon dies. Moon dies also, but thanks to his plan he manages to revive himself into a new body every month, whereas Djarbo remains dead. “Thus, Moon triumphed over bodily death while the first peoples of that ancient time followed Djarbo’s example, and that is why all humans die.”  

At first, people never died. As they grew older, they cast off their skins like snakes and crabs and came out with their youth renewed. One day, an elderly woman went to a stream to change her skin. She shed the old skin and threw it in the water, then watched as it floated downstream and caught on a stick. Then she went home, where she had left her little son. As soon as the child saw her, however, he began to cry because he did not recognize her. “You are not my mother. My mother was an old woman.” To pacify the child, the woman returned to the stream, found the cast-off skin, and put it back on. From that day on, humans ceased to shed their skin and died.   —Melanesian myth
Of course, these fanciful stories can’t be taken seriously. Clearly, they are the products of primitive, childlike minds—nothing more than fairy tales. After all, the real truth, as every biblical fundamentalist will tell you, is that death came into the world when Satan in the form of a talking snake gave a forbidden apple to a naked woman created from the rib of h

Excerpted from The Whole Death Catalogue: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End by Harold Schechter
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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