Sunday 10 December 1995
2 Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying by Sally Cline, Little, Brown pounds 18.99.
Death is a concept with a hole at its heart. The central fact, of being dead, is one that none of us can grasp. We can only approach death tangentially, sidling up to it rather than staring it full in the face.
That being so, it is no surprise that Nigel Barley's anthropological tour never, despite its promise, encounters death. He offers death myths, burial practices, rituals, taboos and metaphors around the world, from the Tlingit of Alaska to the Torajans of Sulawesi, interspersed with accounts of western funerals, notably Barley's father's. The ways that different peoples react tell us not about death but about how they see life: "Funerary behaviour and beliefs around the world read like an extended discussion of the notion of the person."
In the end, though, Dancing On The Grave turns out to be all surfaces and no depths; it is entertaining for a while, but patience runs out when Barley introduces the dichotomy between mind and body simply so that he can say that the western notion of death puts Descartes before the hearse.
Death, for Sally Cline, is all about notions of the person as well; but notions of the person, for her, revolve around sexual identity. Unlike most of life's other rites of passage, death might appear not to discriminate, but Cline is clear that women experience it differently, and more keenly. The requirement not to talk about death hits women harder. Caring for dying parents is disproportionately a burden on daughters. The male medical establishment's brutal view of female cancers amounts to metaphoric harassment. Most suicides are men; so most bereaved relatives, left to bear the stigma, are women. Particularly, Cline asserts that all mothers think constantly about their children dying. She admits that "it is unclear" whether fathers "actually experience less emotion or whether their grief is not given expression". The truth, surely, is that even if grief could be calibrated, an interview with Cline would be an uneasy place for a grieving father to heave his heart into his mouth.
Cline's tone is uneven, with lengthy statistical exegeses, studded with oral history, breaking into incantatory single-sentence paragraphs. It lays out precise taxonomies of death, as if detail can control pain. Fear, for example, splits into five categories: religious fears, fear of pain, fear of separation, existential fear, domestic fears.
The odd thing is that death is a bit like this book: a mixture of statistics and anecdote and awkwardness. Terminal illnesses teach sufferers and relatives a grim arithmetic. But in the end, death is bigger than either comparative anthropology or sexual politics. David Honigmann
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