Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Weekend Death Reads (1)

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booksLast week was hectic, hence the lack of posts (sorry everyone!) but I promise my absence will lead to some really interesting posts in the next week or so that I’m really excited to share as soon as I can! In the mean time, I thought I would do a slightly less academic post on this fine Saturday evening and talk about some death / burial / mortality books that I’ve been enjoying lately, or obsessing over and recommending to everyone who comes near me over the last few weeks.

The books I wanted to talk about today are both academic and works of fiction that really struck a chord with me as being Death Positive, engaging, and just generally entertaining and well written. I’ve been stuck in the numbing world of bibliography editing for the last several days so, and one of my favourite ways to escape that is either with knitting and netflix, or reading (or writing) some fiction. And by not related I meant  exactly, 100% the exact topic my thesis discusses on many occasions: Mortality.

Book 1: Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstairs and Outlaws who made American Spirits.
Colin Spoelman & David Haskell

Book1Dead Distillers is a book I had been creeping in Chapters for months and months, and it was finally gifted to me on Valentine’s Day by my wonderful partner who clearly knows exactly what I like!

What really drew me to this book was that it begins by discussing the tradition of rum-running in North America during the Prohibition years, and how the ‘white-bronze’ zinc monuments that were popular at the time. These monuments were hollow, of course, and the rum-runners saw the opportunity to use these as drop points for their haul. By prying back a panel, you could easily hide bottles of alcohol that would be immediately hidden in an expanse of other monuments. This got me thinking: How many of these historic headstones might still contain a shipment of bootleg liquor that no one came to pick up? (I’m not suggesting you go check though, vandalizing historic graves is bad!). How cool is that?! I’d never heard of this use for metal monuments before, and I’m definitely looking forward to investigating further.

The book goes on to discuss the lives of the famous and the obscure distillers of colonial America, their businesses and struggles…and how and where they died, and where they are buried today! Some of the deaths were pretty brutal, and directly tied to their trade too, as early distilling was extremely dangerous! Seeing as the transition to whiskey from imported rum (& coffee from tea) is such an important symbol of the forming American identity leading up to and through the Revolutionary War, it’s amazing to read about what happened to these people. If you’re interested, there are also mapped out tours to visit their historic burial locations.

Perhaps enjoy this read with a nice G&T! I had a great one recently made from (american) Aviation Gin with a sprig of rosemary in it. Top marks.


Book 2: The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds.
Marilyn Yalom

Book2I first found this volume through an excerpt on Google Books during some research and I immediately rushed to Amazon to order myself a copy. I’m drawn to any book that discusses burial grounds as a landscape feature in any capacity (send me your recommendations!), which is what lead me to this one!

It starts off with a beautiful photo collection of historic burial grounds, swiftly followed by an understanding that, of course, Europeans were not the first people to bury their dead in the soils of North America. The book is mostly based on historic European burial grounds, and touches on sites on the West Coast as well as Hawaii! It’s great to see expansion outside of the immediate New England region when covering this subject (I say, mostly looking at the east coast in my thesis), and exploring how European colonial burial customs evolved as they marched their way west over the continent.

Overall, ‘The American Resting Place’ is an interesting exploration of many different cultures and burial practices across America through the historic period, and if you’re into that you should definitely take a look. It’s fairly generalized though, more of a coffee table book than an academic volume, but with some good tidbits on specific burial grounds, which is what I was after when I purchased the book.


Book 3: Burial Rites.
Hannah Kent

Book3I saved the best for last, and I have been recommending this book to literally everyone who has asked me for a fiction recommendation in the last few weeks. Everyone.
Guys, go find this book right now.

Set in Iceland in the early 1800s, the book follows the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir , the last woman to be sentenced to death for the crime of murder in the country (that part is true, look her up!). The book alternates between Agnes’ point of view as she is moved from a terrible cell to house arrest in northern Iceland to be closer to her crime scene (and her upcoming execution place), and the view of Tóti, a priest, chosen by Agnes to help her come to absolution and peace with what is to come.

It is a work of fiction, but Hannah Kent spent years researching the story, and most of what you read about is taken directly from historic documents and people who knew about the murder and executions. Segments of these documents are sprinkled throughout the book, and they are extremely interesting to read as you work your way through the story.

Other than the main character’s obvious death at the end of the story, what really intrigued me about this book was how much you really feel like you are getting to know Agnes, perhaps not so much her side of the story but the person she has resolved to be in the days leading up to her death. She was a bright, intelligent, condemned woman who is facing her own mortality in a very brutal way, and it comes through in Kent’s words.

10/10 would ready again. I am going to read it again! Starting tomorrow. I tried to contain my raving here but I will never stop talking about how much I enjoyed this book! If you’re looking for a gripping historical fiction dealing with mortality around every corner, then I hiiiighly recommend Burial Rites!

If you have any cool deathy book recommendations for me, please drop me a line in the comments below! Until next time!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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