by Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Fatemeh Ebtehaj, Jonathan Herring, Martin H. Johnson and Martin Richards (eds). Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2007. 322pp. Paper. £35.00/$74.00. ISBN: 9781841137322.

Reviewed by Travis D. Smith, Department of Political Science, Concordia University Montreal, Quebec. Email: tdsmith [at]


A collection of sixteen essays ranging from intriguing and unexpectedly compelling to unexciting and predictable, DEATH RITES AND RIGHTS puts the advantages and disadvantages of multidisciplinarity on display. The chapters of this volume are loosely tied together in that they all address topics associated with dying, death, the afterlife, corpses and the property of the deceased, attending variously to questions of rights, laws, public policy or judicial decisions, all predominantly within the British context. It is hard to pin down the precise target audience of this book given its wide-ranging character with respect to subject area and method. As the essays in this volume are largely descriptive rather than argumentative, my review will be more of an anatomical observation than a diagnostic examination.

The first several chapters fall within what might be called the field of mainstream bioethics, with its standard set of assumptions and preoccupations. They deal with the difficulty involved in establishing a legal definition of death, declared to be “futile” (p.31), the desirability of assisted suicide, regarded as “fast becoming a social need” (p.72), and advocating what is called “a right to die with dignity” (p.90). Envy of the more progressive, more enlightened laws of countries like the Netherlands and Belgium is the tissue that connects the opening chapters.

I found the next two chapters among the most interesting. In a narrative that links disparate topics ranging from theological discrepancies in apocryphal scriptures all the way to cremation laws in modern England, Peter C. Jupp takes the reader through changes in Judeo-Christian practice with respect to funeral rites, indicating how they reflect changing views regarding the afterlife, whether it is understood as bodily resurrection, otherworldly immortality, or non-existent. “From the perspective of post-modernity,” Jupp writes approvingly of the now prevailing heterodoxy on the subject of the afterlife, asserting that “increased competitiveness between beliefs can only be of benefit to truth” (p.111). This postmodern truth is, I suppose, the goodness of the demise of church authority, along with the view that nobody’s ideas regarding the afterlife may be reckoned as true. Francis Woodman and Judith Middleton-Stewart then offer a fascinating look at fifteenth century expectations regarding Purgatory by comparing the provisions made in the wills of the well-to-do.

Next up is a literary analysis of the relationship between poetry and the law through a reading of Wordsworth, then an anthropological investigation into the relevance of present-day “rituals” like [*495] displaying photographs or wearing the clothing and accessories of the dearly departed within immigrant communities in South London, followed by a Habermasian treatment of the bureaucratization and commercialization of death that is unfortunately hampered by Habermasian jargon. A sensible study of the usefulness of police-suspect interviews in homicide investigations is then followed by a review of arguments regarding ownership of the body that point in the direction of a principled defense of the “instinctive view” (p.215) that it is possible to harm people after they have died.

Jonathan Herring contributes an amusing and disturbing chapter on English criminal law as it pertains to corpses, summarizing the laws in existence and finding them wanting. In the process of proposing a more thorough and principled set of laws regarding the mistreatment of the dead, Herring lets people know what kinds of offenses (against morals, honor, taste or the divine, but not against the law) are allowable in accordance with English liberty, such as “the wrapping of a Muslim woman’s corpse with bacon” (p.231). The following chapter by Steve Hedley examines those incongruities of tort law and jurisprudence which make killing people much less burdensome than merely injuring them when it comes to recompensing damages. Hedley also laments the court’s “buck-passing” (p.256) deference to the expertise of psychiatric professionals.

This eclectic compilation concludes with two chapters on the treatment of bodies dissected by medical students. Joanne C. Wilton conducts an interesting historical survey of cadaver procurement practices since early modernity, detailing the shift to a system based on consent. She worries that recent changes in law and regulation will prove costly to medical schools, both financially and in terms of the goodwill they have been building with potential donors and their families. Consistent with the origins and ends of modernity, we learn that the donation of cadavers continues to depend almost entirely on the charity of Protestants and irreligious people. Wilton’s essay is complemented by Elizabeth Hallam’s, in that both of them discuss the respect with which cadavers are treated by anatomy departments and their students.

In conclusion, this book, taken as a whole, may not find many readers who will value every chapter equally. But taken individually or in combination, its chapters will serve differing teachers or researchers across the disciplines differently. Most the chapters have potential relevance to scholars in political science and law.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Travis D. Smith.