Reviewed by Richard Tutin
Though Death is one of the certainties of life along with taxes, it’s not often that we have an opportunity to read about its history. I originally thought that Andrew Doig was going to describe the various practices of different cultures to Death and how people respond when their loved one dies. This includes their belief traditions about what happens to the deceased after they have slipped away from this mortal coil.
Instead, I found something far more interesting but very important since Doig, as a biochemist, explores the various and often misunderstood ways in which people around the globe die. Since it is a history, the logical place to begin is to try and answer the question of what actually is death. Doig could have offered a full scientific explanation and he often does in other chapters of the book. Instead, he begins with a story, a remembrance of that fateful day in 1989 where ninety-six people lost their lives crushed against the barriers in the grandstand of the Hillsborough football ground. From there, he proceeds to introduce the ways in which people die. Plagues such as the Black Death are discussed as is the current Covid-19 pandemic. From there, other causes of death are introduced and discussed. Each one though begins with a story to heighten the reader’s interest and assist in understanding that death is not just clinical, it is also emotional as people face not only the deaths of those whom they know and love but also having to consider and ponder about their own death.
Death then is a complex beast. It can bring out the best and the worst in people at any given time. Some give their lives in order that others may live while others suffer a cruel death either through disease or violent means. Doig also reminds the reader that many people have no time to consider their death due to its sudden appearance.
As stories and facts are offered throughout the book other important areas are included. No history would be complete without mention of those who have championed various causes to make change and create a better world. This is also true when it comes to looking at how people suffer and die. Scientists, engineers and medical experts have and are always working on ways to overcome disease, create safer cars and other forms of transport, and understand what is happening when people feel that they have no option but to end their own lives either through assisted dying or committing suicide. In both those areas, Doig moves very carefully and sympathetically as he teases out information that helps the reader gain some understanding of what happens when people find their lives unbearable, and they cannot continue to live in this present world.
As one who has sat with many who have faced their death due to illness, old age or mortal injury as well as having to comfort those who have lost loved ones suddenly, I found Doig’s exploration very helpful and engaging. It is a book for our times as the world faces pandemics and war after a time of relatively prolonged peace and prosperity. It also assists in demystifying death but reminds us that at some point we all have to face it as we slip from this mortal coil.
Andrew Doig is Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Manchester. He studied natural science and chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and biochemistry at the Stanford University Medical School. His research is on computational biology, neuroscience, dementia, development biology and proteins.
This Mortal Coil: A History of Death
by Andrew Doig
ISBN 978 152662 442 0