Death is something that most of us don’t like to talk about, or is something – if we mention it all – approached with humour. Yet it’s really the only thing, other than birth, that all humans have in common. In this book, Tomás Prower provides a tour of the world’s interpretation of the end of life.
The setup is pretty simple: for various cultures – national and magical – Prower offers an explanation of how death is viewed in that location. A lot of the content revolves around funerary rites – whether burial or cremation is common, say – and gives some idea of the standards that apply. He also offers takeaways from each version of death: things that the reader can apply to their own lives or to their engagement with death, either their own or someone else’s. There’s shades of self-help in several of the suggestions, but they are all reasonable, and of value.
The book is populist rather than particularly deep. With the range of destinations covered through text, this is understandable: fitting the whole in 360 pages was always going to be about offering a taste of locales rather than an in-depth examination. The writing is for the tourist, rather than the sociologist, which is by no means a criticism – it’s a difficult subject to raise anything other than a reluctant or morbid interest in, for most readers – but that also means that it can sometimes feel as if there’s a lack of research rigour, or that certain areas have been squashed together for the sake of convenience.
Prower’s writing style is pally and convivial, but this sometimes engenders the feeling that he’s providing some very much reduced coverage of a culture rather than something particularly in-depth. But even so, I learned some things I hadn’t known, in a pleasingly light manner, which I enjoyed.
I suspect some readers of this work have come away from it with a bit of confusion. The title would indicate that magic is important to the book, and though magical rites do appear in some places, this is much more a book of funerary or morbid ritual, of community approach to the departure of life rather than a collection of incantations designed to harness the power of life’s cessation. It is true that anyone picking up a book from Llewellyn could reasonably expect a grimoire, but it’s not really the case here. There’s a couple of rites – some prefaced with warnings of how they could severely ruin one’s day – but mostly the spiritual practitioners’ takes on death reflect how their cultural and spiritual backgrounds influence their experience of death and grieving.
It’s fitting that Prower mentions Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death towards the end of the book. While his text is produced by an esoterically-minded publisher, it’s very much more in Mitford’s wheelhouse than a magus’s. True, there’s ritual instructions to be found in this text, but it’s very much something to be shelved alongside The American Way of Death – a thoughtful explanation of the behaviours around death, worldwide, with some food for later thought. It’s certainly worth a look, as it’s likely there’s something in here that will spark interest for further research.
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