Even before I read the book my head was spinning. Reading the newspaper articles and listening to interviews resonated with me enormously. The experience of death among family and friends is something we all share. Different aspects of dying resonate with us depending on our own experience. If, like me, you have been following up your family history, a much wider range of vicarious deaths will resonate.
This book has it all. It deals with death, before, during and after, in Dublin from the sixteenth century on.
It opens with a well crafted twenty page overview of its subject by the editors and it is worth getting the book just for this. But it continues with a series of contributions on death and burial which will broaden your understanding of the history and scope of those rituals with which we think ourselves familiar.
And when you've finished reading it you'll want to read more, or even research some new angle which could be relevant to your own family. At least that's how I found it: informative, entertaining and most of all provocative. I have ended up with a list of questions and “to dos” which will hardly be dealt with this side of the grave itself.
There was something in virtually every chapter to which I could relate. Let me just give a few examples.
There is a chapter on the funerals of the first Irish UN peacekeepers to be killed in the Congo in 1961. I was at their funeral as it passed the GPO and the masses of ordinary Irish people who turned out to express their grief and respect. I have to declare a particular interest here as I have a photo of the funeral in the book. But even in this case where I thought I knew it all, this chapter brought new enlightenment, not least that, at a time when the Irish army was held in low esteem at home, the funerals provided it with an opportunity to raise its standing with the people, and it is suggested that it was carefully managed to this end.
The chapter on the recurrence of puerperal (childhood) fever in the Rotunda maternity hospital takes you on a trip through the evolution of hospital hygiene, high infant mortality and the eternal, and often inefficient and delusional, quest for the source of this disease. It mirrors much of what was going on in relation to disease in general at the time. I have three infants in my family buried in The Garden in Glasnevin cemetery in the mid-nineteenth century.
The chapter on postmortem photography of children sounds grim until you think more about it. The younger the deceased the less likely there would be a living image for the parents to treasure. This is particularly true in an age when photography was not as common as it is today and, if families were lucky enough, there might just be a studio family portrait at some stage. As photography spread the postmortem aspect ceased as it was no longer necessary. Unfortunately I have no images of the infants referred to above.
As well as chapters on a variety of other death-related topics, there are some very useful and interesting appendices.
The role of the Church of Ireland (CofI) is reviewed. This is very much to the point as between the Reformation and Catholic Emancipation Catholics were buried in CofI graveyards, though records relating to Catholic burials can be skimpy. Overall, there are large gaps in the CofI records themselves. The irony is that it is mainly those records which were centralised from the parishes to the Public Records Office, as had been required in the interest of preservation, that were destroyed in the siege of the Four Courts in 1922. I suspect that records relating to my maternal great grandfather were among those destroyed.
The editors were given access to the records of Nichols' undertakers, who have been in business in Dublin for over 200 years. These are a fascinating source of how funerals evolved, the coming to prominence of the undertaker, the cost and financing of funerals, the rise and demise of the horse, and so on. I have undertakers on both sides of my family and so found this appendix fascinating.
There is a list of Dublin graveyards (all 180 or so) which will amaze you. Some of these are tucked into nooks and crannies around the city.
So to the verdict. This is a marvelous book, packed with interesting and provocative material. It is copiously footnoted with an excellent bibliography and index. It is an interesting read for the casual reader and an indispensable resource for researchers. The overall presentation is excellent and the illustrations, including colour plates, are well presented on the high quality paper on which the book is printed. Full marks to the editors, contributors and to Four Courts Press who continue in their exemplary tradition of producing high quality relevant books.