Maggie Gray in More Intelligent Life:
On a wet July day in Paris in 1793, during the period now known as “The Terror”, Charlotte Corday was among the first “enemies of the revolution” to be executed by guillotine. After her head was struck from her body, the executioner picked it up and slapped it in a theatrical gesture for the crowd. Some of those watching swore, aghast, that Corday blushed at the insult. The rumour spread, fuelling debate about France’s new killing machine. Its proponents had hailed it as a swift and therefore humane method of execution. But what if the victims did not lose consciousness with the cut of the blade? Was there an awful afterlife for the condemned, in which their severed heads were forced to contemplate their own demise?
This is just one of the fascinating and macabre stories to feature in “Death: A Graveside Companion”. The delightfully dark compendium draws together images of death (many from the collection of an American art dealer, Richard Harris) with essays considering different aspects of mankind’s relationship with death, raising profound and troubling questions. What does it mean to die? What should be done with a corpse? How do we picture death, and can we poke fun at it? Is death the end? The essays are printed on paper the colour of sodden earth; drawings of grinning reapers stalk the reader from the margins. It is a surprisingly lively book. We meet vivid characters who have put death at the centre of their lives, such as Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy American who made miniature models of murder scenes as a police training resource, or Georgiana Houghton, a Victorian artist who claimed her kaleidoscopic drawings were the work of her spirit guide, and early anatomists who raided graves for fresh cadavers. Nowadays we try not to think too hard about death. Modern medicine keeps it at bay and hospitals, care homes and funeral parlours keep it out of sight. For many of us, death is an abstraction. But this sometimes disturbing yet unexpectedly affecting book reminds us that it is the most human thing of all.