________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 41 . . . . June 22, 2018


After Life: Ways We Think About Death.

Merrie-Ellen Wilcox.
Victoria, BC: Orca, Sept., 2018.
88 pp., hardcover, pdf & epub, $24.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1388-5 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1390-8 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1391-5 (epub).

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Life support is what we call the medicines and machines that are used to keep people alive when they would not otherwise survive. The most common types of life support do the work of the lungs, heart, kidneys and digestive system. One of the best-known kinds of life support is the ventilator, a machine that pushes warm, moist, oxygen-rich air into the lungs. Another is the feeding tube, which provides a person with food and water when he or she is unable to eat or drink.

Being able to keep people alive for a long time with machines presents a dilemma. If a person is never going to recover, when should the machines be turned off? At the heart of that question lies another—when is a person still a person, and when is a person dead? Philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, doctors, politicians and the courts have had to deal with these questions. As a result, most places now have laws that say when and how life support can be turned off.

Wilcox is an author, editor (she is one of Orca's editors), and a long-serving volunteer in a hospice in her home community. This background informs her awareness of the shortage of books geared to middle school readers on the topic of death and grieving that gave rise to the current volume. While sensational news accounts of homicides and large-scale death by accident or natural disaster may make news headlines and circulate briefly on social media platforms, Western societies generally do not like to discuss death nor to dwell on human mortality in particular.

      Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is its choice of title proper, After Life, that may give the impression that it is focusing on life after death (afterlife), rather than the physical processes that lead to death, the post-death treatment of the human body, and the effect of loss on family and friends who have experienced the death of a loved one. Similarly, the chapter titles can be ambiguous. "We Are Stardust", the title of the first chapter, really applies to only the beginning of the chapter that includes very brief introductions to beliefs such as the afterlife, recycling souls, and life in another realm (underworld, resurrection). The ambitious scope of the work leads to generalizations and sampling of beliefs from many contemporary faith backgrounds and worldviews, as well as ancient beliefs from extinct societies, including the ancient Egyptians, or from mythology. Typically, sidebars or equivalents introduce mythological content in each chapter. Other sidebars introduce subtopics, examples, definitions and illustrative matter. The book is heavily and appropriately illustrated mostly with stock photos that include captions and credits. It uses watercolor illustrations, preceding each chapter, that are aesthetically appealing but chiefly decorative.

      Chapters are packed with information. Chapter two, "Every Living Thing", discusses the life cycle and emphasizes the lack of oxygen as key to death of living organisms. It introduces the statistical concepts life span, life expectancy, and variation by factors such as gender. Kids will love the sidebars that introduce topics such as cryonic suspension or a double-page spread on the undead: ghosts, zombies, vampires. Chapter three, "Nature or Science?", from which the excerpt above is situated, includes examples of legal cases, sharing of organs via transplant, caring for the dying and assisted dying and, for all pet lovers, Oscar the cat who lived in a hospice in Rhode Island and always cuddled with a patient whose death was imminent. Chapter four, "Atoms to Atoms", has a wonderful chart depicting decomposition in minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months/years. It discusses options such as burial, mummification, embalming, cremation, sky burial, burial at sea and green burial. Kids will enjoy the sidebar about Tollund Man found in an ancient Danish peat bog that had entombed and preserved him for over 2,000 years. In this chapter, the ancient society highlighted is the Chinese emperor Qin Shih Huang (259-210 BCE) who was buried with a Terracotta Army. The mythology highlighted is that of the wolf and coyote in the lore of the North American Shoshone people. Mourning ceremonies and customs are addressed in chapter 5, "Farewell, Adieu."

      "Healing After Loss", the sixth and final chapter, is an appropriate meditation on the mystery of death and the universal while also the individual experience of grief. Wilcox introduces the seminal work of K├╝bler-Ross who introduced the idea of five stages of grief, but brings the matter more up-to-date by introducing "the 8 of grief" model of the stages of grief that can be applied to every individual. Given modern realities, the chapter includes a section on death by suicide and includes the death of pets. Wilcox provides a helpful checklist of points to consider when the reader is grieving and actions one can take when someone else is grieving.

      Words that are likely new to the reader are highlighted in italics and bolded and defined in the glossary. In the case of embalming, the contextual explanation of the term is far superior to that given in the glossary. The finished work will include an index. The advance copy has a page of resources, both print and online. Some of the print resources are geared to children but most are for adult and mature readers.

      Teachers can use After Life: Ways We Think About Death for interventions when death and grieving arise in a classroom and can use it as a comprehensive introduction to the topics for study. In my experience, I found more to appreciate about this work after reading it a second time. Don't let the title and chapter titles put you off.


Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, contact cm@umanitoba.ca.

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