When it comes to death and dying, perceptions are shaped by culture, and in The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying Eve Joseph takes us on a lyrical journey of historic and contemporary interpretations of the process. She weaves together her career in hospice with her experiences losing her older brother at a young age, as well as the death of her mother to create a patchwork quilt exploring various experiences of death, mixed with tidbits from literature, art, and mythology. Readers are treated to the origins of language used to describe all things death, and how, over time, specific death-related terms developed particular meanings. Her poetic touch is evidenced by the succinct brevity of her chapters and the seamless integration of literary quotes, linguistics, etymology, and the beautiful imagery that runs throughout her narrative.
An easy read, this book is a good starting point for expanding understanding of the various permutations of death. Joseph includes anecdotes of conversations with members of staff, palliative care team members, doctors, and her own memories, to attempt a more universal, holistic, and rational approach to death. There are many references to various Native North American tribal rituals with their ancient and mystical qualities. The author uses lovely imagery intertwined with later experiences and memories of her brother’s death, as she discusses a deeper understanding of her own life through the evolution of her grief and personal loss.
Fears commonly associated with death start to peel away with the calmness and resoluteness carrying the tone of the narrative. There is a strong sense of futility as Joseph analyzes the time-honored practice of fearing death and engaging in many various activities in an attempt to outwit it and live forever. The book suggests that there is no point in avoiding the discussion of what will happen when one eventually dies as this is a singular guarantee for all living things without exception. The ease with which she brings the reader to this conclusion, mostly through her personal narrative of her own journey of understanding, offers the potential for reconciliation for those who are resentful or struggling with loss. Therefore, the unspoken conclusion resonates: death will not be avoided or negated; death is a partner to be treated with respect and dignity. No longer something to shy away from or to discuss in shadowed corners with whispered breaths, death brings ultimate peace and serenity. Death has its own purpose, which is not disclosed to the living, but the presence of those who have died are a constant comfort for those who believe in such things.
The most interesting facet of this book is the ongoing discussion of the place in-between life and death, or rather, of individuals who have been dead by all current measure of medical equipment, yet inexplicably remain among the living. Joseph alludes to the various lessons that can be learned through death and those who are in the current act of dying. Her quiet acceptance offers a wide berth of experience for those who may be in-between life and death. According to Joseph, in such a place, there may lie a choice of returning to life or leaving it behind.
For those who do pass on, the author explores various conceptual rituals such as burial and cremation, as well as the need to remember those who have passed with gravestones and celebrations. She expounds upon the different philosophies behind these rituals and how such choices are fundamentally intertwined with how one views life. In Joseph’s opinion, the practical matter of disposal is tied quite closely with how groups of individuals believe the physical form should be handled after death, or what type of ritual would be appropriate to honor or assist the deceased.
An overarching theme of fluidity permeates this book, both through the cadence of the writing in brief sections, as well as the ease with which Joseph blends her past and present experiences. She describes death as a transition — a passage through to the unknown or a rebirth, rather than simply an end of what was known. She explains that the necessity and objective factuality of death does not deter one from finding a way to keep the dead among the living in both real and metaphorical aspects. Throughout the book, she supports the idea of a very real sense of the dead surrounding or even coexisting with the living. The relationship between the qualities of being alive and those of not being alive seem almost symbiotic or even necessary for the author, and by extension the reader, to reach a fuller understanding of death and acceptance of grief.
She explains expressions of wholeness being divided into the two opposing forces of light and dark, or life and death. The constant reference to the author’s much older brother and her memories of him, as well as accounts from her mother, sister, and other individuals who knew him in life, render an almost tribute-like feeling to the narrative. As the reader joins the author on the journey, one easily connects with memories of personal loss, and perhaps find insight that brings additional and unexpected comfort to the reader.
As we struggle to assist clients who recently lost loved ones, or who are considering their own eventual demise, this book can bring a measure of comfort. Elder law and estate planning attorneys may be wise to add this to their book recommendations for clients. It offers a practical way to experience different ideas about death through sharing the author’s experiences. It provides a viewpoint on death which is not frightening and in some ways not even sad, but a natural and expected progression of life. As is often the case, when discussing planning for death, there can be an uneasiness of mentioning one’s own demise and what may occur after such an event. Some of the author’s tenor and references could be useful in these discussions.
In conclusion, this book was a delight to read and somehow made a heavy and not often discussed subject more accessible and lighthearted.