‘Dancing on the Grave’ by Nigel Barley

This is probably a book that would shock my mother, but delight my great-aunt.  Dancing on the Grave is a collection of recollections of Nigel Barley (anthropologist) from his personal experiences and studies.  He wins bonus points for citing some of the books I used in my own thesis, and then loses some for doing that weird meandering thing with time and place that I have noted when reading Bill Bass’s memoirs and some other American anthropological non-fiction.  Maybe there’s a textbook or lecturer out there, training people in the Arch and Anth faculties to ignore linearity and explanation in favour of segueing between case studies? If so, they must have stopped by London and had a chat with Barley at some point.

Anyway, that meandering usually annoys me but in this collection of titbits and factoids about local differences in death culture rituals it worked quite well.  I happily grinned and laughed and nodded at the descriptions of funeral practices, and had a great time of it.  Then I read some of the jokes out aloud, and faced the horrified and disgusted faces of my family.  It appears that puns along the lines of

Putting the hearse before Descartes

aren’t as hilarious to people who don’t handle the dead for a living.  What I loved most were the solid bibliography, the presence of an index, and the way that Barley confesses to his perspective bias and emphasises it by mentioning several times the contrasts in attitudes between anthropologists from different cultural backgrounds and the strangeness of our own behaviour and rituals.  If you’re interested in seeing death as it is, with all the positives and negatives and social implications, (or if you have an interest in mortuary studies) you should read this book.  The squeamish may want to forgoe meals beforehand, though; there are bones and some mentions of cannibalism and gore.

Oh goodness me, in a review at metapsychology, it is mentioned that this book was renamed for American release.  I suppose that the title was too silly perhaps, or maybe just not solemn enough.  There aren’t any book blogger reviews from what I could find, though I’ll modify search terms and edit this post if I find any in the future.


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