Traditions of Death and Burial: Book Review by Julia O'Connell

Below is a review of a new book by Helen Frisby--social historian of the Association for the Study of Death & Society--entitled Traditions of Death and Burial by our docent and writer Julia O'Connell. The book is a new addition to The Morbid Anatomy Library; you can visit it next weekend, our final open weekend this season, from 11:30 - 4:30. You will find a few images from the book at the end of the review. 

Hope you enjoy!


The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is essentially the premise of Helen Frisby's Traditions of Death and Burial. In this new book coming out November 26, Dr. Frisby—a social historian and Secretary of the Association for the Study of Death & Society—seeks to understand the changing relationship between the living and the dead throughout the history of her native country, England. To this end, Frisby takes on the ambitious task of covering nearly 1,000 years of death and burial customs in a mere 90 pages. The feat is even more impressive considering that myriad color photographs and historic illustrations take up a significant portion of those pages. Nonetheless, she manages to provide a broad overview of English attitudes toward death from the Norman Conquest to the present day and speculates on how these attitudes may change in the future.

In a brief introduction titled "The Death of Dying?", Frisby muses on England's current death culture, commenting that "the process of dying has somehow become socially, spiritually and emotionally impoverished." She identifies the last few decades of the 20th century as the period when the death taboo became firmly established in English society. For thousands of years before, people cultivated active relationships with the dead through various funerary rituals and mourning practices. Now, in the 21st century, some members of English society are seeking out new ways to bring meaning and spirituality back into their mourning process. Frisby hopes that  studying England's past will provide insight and inspiration for those looking to change their perspective on death today.

The first chapter, covering the entirety of the medieval period, focuses on how the belief in Purgatory influenced the relationship between the living and the dead. Since the dead souls in Purgatory needed prayers from the living in order to move on more swiftly to heaven, and the living needed to practice good deeds in order to shorten their own time in Purgatory, the interaction was something of a give-and-take, with blatant and even gruesome momento moris being used to remind the living of their obligations. The next chapter examines how the Protestant Reformation changed England's death practices. Religious rituals were altered to reflect the fact that church authorities now rejected the doctrine of Purgatory and anything viewed as superstition. Yet a complete shift, especially when enforced from the top down, doesn't happen overnight, and old practices tended to blend with the new in often subtle ways. The chapter on "Dying in the Industrial Age" deals with the effects of rapid population growth and urbanization, as well as the famous mourning culture of the Victorians. Frisby titles her chapter on the 20th century "The Practical Death," to reflect the increased secularization and lack of elaborate funeral customs during this period. In the final chapter on death practices today and in the future, Frisby notes an increasing reaction against the sterile, institutionalized death culture of the 20th century and discusses how new technology leads to new death practices as well as new forms for very old customs. Lastly, in a short conclusion, Frisby summarizes which aspects of death have essentially stayed the same over the last millennium and which areas have seen real change.

Given the book's length and its broad scope, Frisby is only able to skim the surface of topics that could be entire books onto themselves. She also has a tendency to oversimplify English society into a monolith, only occasionally acknowledging class differences in death customs and entirely leaving out any discussion of ethnic or religious minorities. But what this book does do well is highlight patterns that appear in England's death and burial traditions over time. She draws connections between seemingly dissimilar practices and makes a convincing case that many medieval traditions have persisted to the present day. She argues that this consistency exists because burial and mourning practices fulfill a basic human need to bond with the dead and understand our own mortality, which has remained more or less unchanged over the millennia. Traditions of Death and Burial is a great introductory text for anyone looking to step back and take a long view of one country's history with death.

Julia O'Connell works in publishing in New York City and volunteers as a docent at the Morbid Anatomy exhibit. You can find more of her writings on Gothic and death-related literature at

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