LIKE ANY OTHER self-respecting workaholic, I do not fear death, which is why my favorite euphemism for the end may be "the big sleep." So I was a little horrified by a recent Wall Street Journal article describing the posthumous broadcasting career of one Richard L. Evans. Evans hosts a popular folk-wisdom feature from the grave called "Thought for the Day" on St. Louis's KMOX. Luckily, he left behind seven years' worth of tapes before he went to the great recording studio in the sky back in 1971. The Journal reported that "Mr. Evans 'is a member of the team as much as Steve or I,' says Nan Wyatt, who co-anchors KMOX's morning news program with Steve Jankowski. 'Being dead doesn't necessarily take you off the air here.'" So how does this work? Does Evans get paid vacations? Benefits? How about sick days?
While none of these questions are answered in Constance Jones's wonderful compendium R.I.P.: The Complete Book of Death & Dying, they are the exceptions. Need to know the address of the National Association for Fair Funeral Prices? It's in here. Wondering about the life expectancy in Papua New Guinea? It's 55. Curious about the last words of Karl Marx? The old codger snarled to his housekeeper, "Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."
Jones's exhaustive, easy-to-use survey of the great beyond offers a grab bag full of statistics, charts, histories, legends and fun facts addressing all things death. Did you know that one of the surviving members of the Donner party wound up running a steak house? That the first autopsy in the New World took place in 1533 in order to determine if Siamese twins "had one soul or two"? That the Vatican has never excommunicated Hitler? That in Babylonia selling bad beer was a capital crime?
Let's just say that with Jones's tidbits in my head, my cocktail party chitchat just got a lot more morbid. This book is a graveyard humorist's dream, and not just because of its doomy anecdotes. Jones inflicts a subtle, icy playfulness on her subject matter. For instance, the section on consuming human flesh is called "Bite Me: The Rituals of Cannibalism." A discussion of transplant donation reads, "The removal of organs for transplant is like a routine surgical operation, except that the donor is not anesthetized."
The book's admirable stylistic restraint--leading to so many similar sophisticated chuckles--works the opposite way as well. Consider this lethal little sentence: "Satellite photography has identified the sites of recent mass graves in Bosnia and investigators have further confirmed the existence of these graves." It follows a rather gruesome list of mass graves of the past--historical horrors like the Black Hole of Calcutta or a Peking river which became the cemetery for 20,000 Chinese killed by the Japanese in World War II. Bringing up Bosnia only grabs you by the collar, reminding any reader that genocide's not just history; it's news.
Murder, catastrophe, execution, suicide: All the abstract concepts get covered. But perhaps the book's most useful potential is the rather plain, pine-box elegance of the final chapters, "Making Arrangements" and "Saying Good-bye." These pages are written with grieving in mind, covering everything from the psychological aspects of the mourning process to sample copies of casket price lists and pointers on delivering a eulogy. Here, all of death's aspects come crashing into play--the pain of it, certainly, but also death as a business, as a cause for ritual, and as the real, physical fact of it that turns the ones we love into bodies in need of disposal. For all the philosophizing, humor, and even beauty that death inspires, it's still one cruel fate, big sleep or not. In the final words of Lytton Strachey--still a critic with his last breath, Jones points out--"'If this is dying, I don't think much of it.