The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying
Series: Routledge Religion Companions
- ISBN: 9781138852075
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: May 2017
In recent decades, the amount and quality of academic secondary literature on death and dying in various religious traditions has increased significantly. This volume, The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying, very successfully moves progress in this area even further. A full two-thirds of this huge book’s content deals fairly exclusively with religious issues, and we will see below that even the remaining one-third of the text could enormously benefit students of religion as well.
With respect to how specific religious traditions over history have raised and responded to questions regarding death and dying, the first twenty-two chapters (constituting the entirety of part 1) of this work cover the so-called “world religions,” as well as indigenous traditions in Africa and North America and new religious movements. All of these single-tradition treatments are written (as are all other chapters throughout the volume) by leading researchers in their fields. These chapters do not pretend to be comprehensive. They are ten to twelve pages in length and focus on two main areas: First, they describe doctrines about the nature of death and the afterlife as found in a tradition’s primary sources, and second, they discuss traditional funerary practices, mostly by way of referring to and summarizing leading academic descriptions and analyses of death rituals. These discussions are models of erudition and clarity, making them relevant to both specialists looking for the cutting-edge of scholarship, and non-specialists looking for reliable introductions to religious views of and responses to death. This was abundantly clear to me in my readings of both chapters on religions about which I am fairly learned, as well as those about which I am not. This leads me to conclude with great assurance that this volume is now, and surely will continue to be, an essential first source for all endeavors aimed at increasing knowledge in the field of death and dying.
At this point, readers of this review might wonder about the book’s apparent decision to focus “only” on post-mortem issues (funerals and afterlife) and thus see a major deficiency here. To alleviate this possible concern, we must next point to part 4, which is devoted entirely to dying-process matters, with a few of its chapters giving fine attention to the religious concern with ars moriendi and “dying the good death.” Most useful in this respect is the chapter by Harold Coward and Elizabeth Causton on hospice palliative care. Also of central import is Dennis Klass’s piece on studying grief from a cross-cultural perspective. Although his chapter never refers specifically to any particular religious (or for that matter non-religious) tradition, it nevertheless provides a valuable theoretical framework through which scholars interested in death and grieving from any perspective could gain greater understanding. This points us to another strength of the volume, which is that even chapters that deal almost exclusively with non-religious concerns (mostly found in parts 5 an 6) provide excellent opportunities for students of religion to consider human approaches to death and dying in the widest possible comparative context. Part 1 obviously initiates this work, and part 4 furthers this project.
The importance of always maintaining a comparative perspective as part of one’s approach is reiterated as we turn finally to parts 2 and 3, for here we find even more first-rate work on death and dying in religion in their chapters on major sub-themes of investigation in the discipline. These are very thorough and insightful surveys of topics such as heaven and hell, reincarnation, mysticism, ghosts, angels, animals, assisted dying, suicide, martyrdom, and abortion, all considered with comparative and cross-cultural eyes. There are also a couple of chapters on how religious matters are addressed in fields closely tied to religious studies, such as archaeology and anthropology.
In sum, this work will undoubtedly come to serve as an invaluable reference work for scholars, students, and the general public to first consult, as they pursue further explorations of concerns and values related to matters of death and dying, matters that are so central to the human condition and our understanding of it.
Bradley S. Clough is associate professor of global humanities and religions at the University of Montana.Bradley S. CloughDate Of Review:October 6, 2017