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by Edwin Shneidman
Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Jan 12th 2010

A Commonsense Book of Death

A Commonsense Book of Death is a book about death, from the expert perspective of Dr. Edwin Shneidman.  Author Shneidman is a Professor of Thanatology Emeritus, at UCLA.  The relative abstruseness, of Shneidman's  brilliant discourse regarding issues linked to death, is a notable property of this book.

Another notable property of the book is the unlikely mixing of an eclectic array of structural strata.  The book's multi layer structure compositely encompasses:  a ten chapter long stratum, formed by a reprinting of selected parts of Shneidman's 1973 book, entitled DEATHS OF MAN; an adjoining layer formed by a 2005 retrospective review, of DEATHS OF MAN, written by M. Brewster Smith (a Professor of Psychology Emeritus, at the University of California at Santa Cruz); another ten chapter long stratum, composed of reflections by Shneidman on death, written in this century as Shneidman approached age 90; and a layer in the form of a “Report” about Shneidman, by his psychotherapist (Ethel Oderberg).

The deeply cerebral musings comprising the substantive essence of this intellectually absorbing book contribute importantly to the study of death.

Reprinted excerpts, drawn from DEATHS OF MAN, comprise the substance of the book's first ten chapters.  By means of this reprinted matter, the reader is informed about some of Shneidman's views regarding death, as published in 1973.

The excerpted 1973 material covers considerable substantive ground in the area of death, enveloping engaging discourse concerning:  “stages”(in the dying process); the concept of “appropriate” death; “postvention”; the “postself” concept; the paradox of being able to “experience” the death of another, but not being able to “experience” one's own death; “intentioned”, “unintentioned”, and “subintentioned” deaths; the death certificate document; the “psychological autopsy”; and possible effects (of  the possibility of nuclear destruction) on attitudes towards death.

Many parts of the textual composition are tethered to referenced research materials; and much of the discourse, of Shneidman, is devoted to expert comment tied to these materials.  Not infrequently, quotes taken from referenced research materials are embedded in the textual terrain.  Also grafted here and there in the textual body are some anecdotal fragments comprised of actual, real life comments.

Joined to the textual corpus is a structural appendage (“References”), made up of citations for research materials arranged, alphabetically, by author last name,

Interspersed in the text are some reproductions of artistic creations, which contribute aesthetic appeal to the book.

The remaining ten chapters of the book are comprised of reflections on death penned by Shneidman in this century, as he approached age 90.  A structural feature (“Then and Now”) is presented at the start of each of the remaining ten chapters, in which Shneidman pithily encapsulates any evolution in his thinking “then” (in 1973) and “now” (2008), with regard to particular issues and subject areas relating to death.  Akin to Shneidman's writing, as presented in the book's first ten chapters, the writing of Shneidman, in the book's last ten chapters, is similarly abstruse in nature and replete with very cerebral, and oftentimes philosophic type, musings.

Particular death related issues and subject areas falling within the intellectual ken, of Shneidman, in the last ten chapters, encompass:

orientations toward death; “subintentioned” deaths; the death certificate; modes of death; the “psychological autopsy”; criteria for a “good” death; psychological commonalities of suicide; the cubic model (of suicide); and the “postself”.

The pensive ponderings of Shneidman are not immune to criticism.  Some may carp that Shneidman's review of selected research materials pertaining to death is relatively superficial in nature; and others may caution that particular views advanced by Shneidman may not be shared by other experts.

But plainly, over the course of the book, Shneidman has conducted a thoughtful, and very revealing, examination of the subject of death.  Shneidman's recondite manner of writing may tend to steer reading interest away from lay readers.  However, a broad range of professionals may be attracted strongly to Shneidman's reflections about death, including:  thanatologists, suicidologists, bereavement counselors, coroners, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, behavioral scientists, social workers, gerontologists, philosophers, clergy members, forensic scientists, forensic pathologists, oncologists, hematologists, emergency room doctors, medical historians, and sociologists.


© 2010 Leo Uzych


Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.