The 19th Century has been described as some as a romantic time period, one where life–and luxury–was embraced. But this was a culture that was also fascinated by death and the macabre.
The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, is a compilation of all things grim and gothic surrounding the death rituals in the Victorian time period. From funeral bicycles to macabre artwork, premature burials to post-mortem photography, this book explores the grisly and gruesome as well as the heartrending. Written mostly in short-story format, the book is less a compilation of dark trivia and more an anthology of curated articles, stories, and tales from the time.
Many of you piped up about having a love of horror, dark thrillers, AND has a strong spiritual practice and even more reached out on social media to let me know you too, are fascinated by the macabre and the darker things in life…including what comes after it.
While The Victorian Book of the Dead has been on my wishlist for ages, I finally got my hands on a copy and am eager to dive in. I wonder if it might parallel another great (and grisly) book, The Frighteners, by Rev. Peter Laws.
Both books explore a culture’s approach to death–Laws in present-day, Woodyard’s in the Victorian time period. As Laws points out in his book, however, the privacy that’s currently in place to shield us from death can be as unnatural as the Victorian’s fascination with it.
Our modern norms do protect us from infection and disease, not to mention the privacy issues that have become so important to us these days. Yet this lack of having death in our face does have its negative side effects. Not least, because it makes the subject itself taboo.~Rev. Peter Laws, p.75 “The frighteners”
Still, isn’t all this talk of death and the practices surrounding it, well, twisted? Not really. No one has ever avoided death by ignoring it. And the exploration of the rituals, ceremonies, and accouterments surrounding it can be fascinating. To those of us who are interested in and willing to learn about a topic others consider morbid, it can be quite freeing. Perhaps this is why, Laws points out, “Death Cafes” are springing up around the globe.
Yes, these really are like they sound: cafes where people come together to talk about death over tea and cake. According to the website, the intention is to:
“…increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”~Death Cafe
Like the strange fact that reading thrillers can be good for our health, perhaps having a better understanding of death and the historical rituals around it help us as we face it in our own futures.
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death…”
The Victorian Book of the Dead is packed with strange stories: “Woman Foretold Her Death, Arranged Flowers for Her Coffin and Died,” to eyebrow-raising tales, such one about a physician so worried about premature burial, he drove a knife into his dead wife’s heart…just to be sure she wasn’t a victim of it.
Whether you’re interested in the darker side of things in life or prefer to get all of your thrills and chills between the covers of a completely fictional novel, one thing is certain:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality…~Emily Dickinson, 1st stanza of “Because I could not stop for death”
Thoughts? Will either of these books make it onto your #TBR list?
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