With the passing of Christopher Hitchens in December, and the loss of such icons as Ray Bradbury, Maeve Binchy, and Gore Vidal in the months since, the last year has been one suffused with death for the literary world. It is perhaps timely, then, that – in addition to Hitchens’ posthumous memoir – this fall sees the publication of two books that examine the subject of death from very different perspectives, and with very different results.
Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras make their intentions plain in the subtitle of Death: The Scientific Facts to Help Us Understand It Better. The large-format, illustrated book is a primer on the physical nature of death, offering a clinical, scientific overview of the topic, an approach befitting the authors’ backgrounds: Beliveau is a professor of biochemistry and a cancer researcher, and Gingras is an oncology researcher at the Université du Québec.
With mind-sapping precision, the writers explore the mechanics of death, breaking down its manifold causes into four categories – trauma, infections, diseases, and poisons – all of which lead to the single, crucial moment of expiration: brain death. “Death is not wholly physical,” they write. “It is above all the death of a person, of a human being endowed with mental faculties unequaled in the entire living world, which enable him to reflect and interact with his fellow human beings and express his emotions.” Thus, “even though the heart, lungs and organs as a whole are essential to life, it is brain death that marks the frontier between life and death.”
Perhaps owing to the authors’ training, Death is written in an information-packed, unflinching academic style that scrupulously explores death from the cellular level outward. It’s excessively informative, but it reads more like an introductory-level textbook for undergraduates than a trade book. (When concessions are occasionally made to general readers, they feel clunky and out of place.) The heavy – though effective – use of charts, tables, and illustrations further adds to this textbook feel. While Death does what it sets out to do, its clinical nature fails to impart an empathic, human exploration of its subject: it explains what death is, but fails to explore what death means.
Sandra Martin delivers on that meaning. In Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada, Martin, chief obituary writer for The Globe and Mail, collects and expands 50 of her columns from the first decade of the 20th century, carefully selected to focus on individuals who influenced Canadian society, from head-tax survivor Ralph Lung Kee Lee to former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, from activist Jane Jacobs to businessmen Ted Rogers and Ed Mirvish. It’s a dizzying, dazzling, ultimately affirming collection.
Throughout the book, Martin describes her working life – the process of preparing an obituary (her account of interviewing actor William Hutt less than a week before his passing is beautiful and haunting), and the shift in approach that has taken place with the immediacy of online news. She also dispels five myths about the so-called “dead beat,” including the idea that the job is a journalistic dead end, and the notion that obituaries are inherently depressing.
Martin clearly loves her work, and it shows in her 50 appreciations, which she refers to as “lives.” Readers will, naturally, be drawn to subjects of personal interest (I’ll admit to flipping ahead to read about Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler), but it is a testimony to Martin’s skill and care, not to mention her deep respect, that every one of these pieces resonates. While I might have no interest whatsoever in hockey, the portrait of Maurice “Rocket” Richard is both stirring and heartbreaking.
Yes, the 50 individuals chronicled here were public figures, and in some cases household names, but Martin doesn’t focus on that; instead, she focuses on the individual, regardless of impact or influence. In so doing, she finds the human meaning in death that Beliveau and Gingras are only able to hint at.