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216 × 138 × 18 mm
256 pages
01 Jul 2015

A Brief History of Death William M. Spellman

A Brief History of Death offers a topical survey of views concerning death and its aftermath in the Western tradition, from prehistory to the present. It explores how humans understand and come to terms with the fact of mortality and looks at the physical and social aspects of death, how dying people are treated, how the dying conduct themselves in the knowledge of their approaching demise and how survivors choose to remember the dead.

W. M. Spellman examines the work of archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists to give insight into prehistoric perspectives on death through the interpretation of physical remains. He spotlights the great philosophical and scientific traditions of the West, or what can be termed the rationalist approach to end-of-life issues. The book also examines the major religious traditions that emerged during the so-called ‘Axial Age’ of the ancient world, focusing particularly on the centuries-long evolution of the Western Christian tradition. Three approaches to the meaning of death – negation of life, continuity in another form and agnosticism – are examined in both religious and secular-scientific contexts.

A Brief History of Death considers how we have died throughout history, both in the causes of death and in our varying attitudes to actions that lead to the deaths of fellow humans. The book provides a deeper context for contemporary debates over end-of-life issues, especially the emerging tension between longevity and quality of life.

‘a rich and sweeping account of how death has reflected and shaped human life since pre-history.’ — TLS

A Brief History of Death has a great deal to offer: a historian-magpies collection of hundreds of engaging topics that readers can dip into.’ — The Guardian

‘After the spate of near-death and out-of-the-body experience books comes this refreshing step back to examine the nature of the death experience culturally, historically, psychologically and personally . . . Recommended reading as an antidote to modern life.’ — Fortean Times

‘Spellman provides a general guidebook on death and memorialisation amongst human beings with a strong focus on western worlds . . . [the book] would benefit a general readership or an early undergraduate introduction to life and death. It possesses a good mix of material derived from established scientific and arts-humanities scholarship. Beingbrief it inevitably sketches and hints at topics rather than explore any in depth, but it will, at least, direct readers to themes they might not have considered previously.’ — Social History of Medicine

‘This [book] is both timely and necessary . . . The 200-page examination of evolving attitudes to death is balanced, erudite and readable’ — Methodist Recorder

‘explores how our concerns and perceptions about mortality form a part of our inquiry into what it ultimately means to be human, alive and living. This historical study packs a wealth of information for its size. It is an ambitious interdisciplinary project that uniquely knits together the fields of philosophy, religion, medical ethics, sociology, psychology and our medical profession into a coherent narrative . . . This introduction will be of interest to anyone with a fascination for the evolution of historical and philosophical perspectives of death based on the evidence of scholarship and writings of major thinkers in their respective fields.’ — The Bulletin of The Royal College of Pathologists

‘In a short narrative, Spellman packs abundant reflection . . . This treatment of how people try to rationalize, hasten, outwit or supplant death leaves one mulling over our frailty. Spellman counsels us to give in, rather than fight the doomed contest against organic decay. He accepts our own placement between these two towering bookends, generation and termination.’ — Spectrum Culture

‘an interesting and informative, wide-angle survey of ideas about mortality . . . Throughout the book Spellman includes provoking contrasts between death then and now, as well as comments on future trends’ — Church Monuments

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W. M. Spellman is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and author of many books including Monarchies, 1000-2000 (Reaktion, 2001), Uncertain Identity: International Migration since 1945 (Reaktion, 2008) and A Brief History of Death (Reaktion, 2014).


1. Preliminary Patterns
2. Thinking Things Through
3. Extraordinary Narratives
4. Adverse Environments
5. Modern Reconsiderations
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