This is the first entry in what I hope to become a regular series: flash book reviews, dealing with the dead in one way or another. I will keep the structure pretty simple: a short overview of the contents, with highlights, and my thoughts, followed by two other reading suggestions that match the topic of the book reviewed.
The title for today is Death, The Dead and Popular Culture, by Ruth Penfold-Mounce (Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018, 160 pages). Ruth Penfold-Mounce is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of York, and also one of the editors of the newly released Emerald Studies in Death and Culture Series (of which this book is part of), which ‘will create a new forum for the publication of interdisciplinary research that approaches death from a cultural perspective‘.
According to the publisher’s description, the aim of this book is to:
develop the sociological intersectionality between death, the dead and popular culture by examining the agency of the dead. Drawing upon the posthumous careers of the celebrity dead and organ transplantation mythology in popular culture the dead are shown to not be hampered by death but to benefit from the symbolic and economic value they can generate.
So let’s have a look:
Cross-road of anthropology, sociology, cultural history & death studies.
This is a short, and easy to read book, comprising six chapters. The first chapter is a general introduction to the agency of the dead topic. This will offer no surprises to those already familiar with death studies, but it is a good intro for those who are new to the topic. Next is a descriptive, though entertaining to read text on the posthumous careers of celebrities – of particular interest I found the details of the Robin Williams case, an interesting story about who owns the body (and its image) in a postmodern century. Chapter 3 on the Afterlife of corpses : organ transplantation was my favourite. This is an original piece which looks at the value of the ‘pieces of the dead’ in relation to ‘transplantation mythology’ & its roots: the myths of threat of science, misplaced trust, of forced donation, and lack of control. Though I do not fully agree with the author in identifying all these as ‘myths’, nevertheless I find informative a reading of organ donation in this key, and through the lens of cultural history (in the author’s case especially through films). The following chapter makes an interesting sociological reading of The Undead, interpreted as ‘an embodiment of morbid sensibility’. The last two chapters look at the relationship of contemporary Western societies with death, ‘death denial societies’ as the author names them via anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (I especially liked the Gazing upon the authentic dead discussion), and a chapter of final thoughts. Overall Ruth Penfold-Mounce makes a compelling case of the complexities embedded in our relationship with death, and the dead, as mediated by popular culture. Identity issues, fears, ownership, financial gain, denial and horror, all come together in different mixes under the seemingly straightforward appearance of movies, novels, news, or TV shows.
This book is beautifully published, from the font, to the cover illustration, paper, and format size. Unfortunately this is an aspect often neglected with academic scholarship, and this book is definitely setting the bar high in this respect ♥. It is also easily accessible, short & on point, well rounded book, rather like an extended essay.
‘Nowhere is this vibrancy more clearly represented than in portrayals of the Undead. As an embodiment of death, the Undead are monstruous animated corpses that have captivated public fascination within popular culture for decades as well as in literature and myth long before that. The Undead appear in folktales from around the world [..] incorporeal spirits, such as banshee, ghost, poltergeist, or wraith to living (or reanimated) corpses, including the draugr, ghoul, revenent, mummy, janghsi, wight, vampire and zombie’ (p. 63)
‘notably becoming a vampire is far more desirable than a zombie’ (p. 85) [my comment: I would really enjoy an academic discussion on this point]
Could be improved
It is sometimes slightly confusing when references are made in the text to other authors just by their surnames, and I would imagine this would be even trickier for a non-specialist audience.
I think this book would be enjoyed both by non-specialists interested in what lies behind the popular portrayals of the dead, but also by those who work broadly in the area of death studies (historians of science, osteologists, anatomists, cultural anthropologists, archaeologists, writers,..).
If you liked this you might also want to have a look at:
⇒ Up next week: The Hidden Bones (Hills & Barbrook) by Nicola Ford – a new archaeologically themed murder mystery.