‘Dead: A Celebration of Mortality’ by Charles Saatchi (Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2015)
I was eager to read ‘Dead: A celebration of mortality’ authored by the well-known co-founder of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and a London art gallery, particularly since Charles Saatchi has always been a controversial public figure. Regrettably, the content of this book did not live up to my expectations except for the occasionally witty and often, intriguing chapter titles like ‘Perfect Health is Merely the Slowest Way to Die’, being the stand-out content of the book.
Content aside, the book also lacks a much-needed introduction to provide a context for the seemingly random collection of short chapters (each is on average just 4-5 pages long) and its link to the exhibition at the Saatchi gallery by the same name. The book also lacks a contents page, index and bibliography, rendering it redundant for death studies scholars and more widely, scholars in the social sciences or arts and humanities whose research focuses on death, dying and/or disposal. Rather, the book is perhaps best read by randomly choosing a few chapters for amusement whilst waiting for your dentist’s appointment or before going to sleep.
Intellectually the book is problematic in that it is littered with unreferenced statistics, at best, useless for any academic purpose and at worst, at risk of being fallacious. ‘Dead’ is a cross between journalism and pop culture writing that because of its vacuity, does nothing to seriously prompt the reader into reflecting upon issues of mortality. Rather, Saatchi’s brief musings tend towards glorifying death, crime and violence simultaneously; the first chapter of the book for example is called ‘The Russian Mafia Know How to Give you a Nice Grave’ and irritated me immensely by furthering negative stereotypes of Russia and focusing on glorifying violent death. Similarly, sexual violence and death was (predictably) chosen as a focus for several chapters. Numerous gender and non-human animal stereotypes were also reinforced with reference, for example, to female spiders eating snakes as ‘nature’s illustration of female appetites’ (p. 16) in a world in which the human animal demonstrates attitudes to death ‘handed down to us from our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors’ (p. 16). Saatchi’s ‘deadliest killers’ were the mafia, Disney land, non-human animals, death row and the creators of ‘snuff movies’; a predictable mashup of vacuous, superficial musings that serve to ‘other’ women, ethnic minorities, non-human animals and those already disenfranchised or marginalised by contemporary life or historical accounts.
Although I believe this book has little value for those scholars in the medical humanities it is a book ripe for deconstruction by a social scientist to argue that death is having a revival in contemporary culture (particularly journalism, fashion, art and design), but one that simply maintains the popularist mediated fascinations with unusual or ‘bad deaths’, omitting any serious discussion about inequalities in end-of-life care or the enduring issue of people’s experiences of being unable to pay for a funeral or being denied a ‘good death’. Far better than Saatchi’s contribution to popularist discussions of death are the intelligent exhibition musings compiled in the Wellcome’s book ‘Death’ (2012) or the investigative journalism of Mary Roach (2003), Mark Harris (2008) and Melanie King (2008). One of Saatchi’s chapter titles is ‘Are you being bored to death by this book?’ Yes, I am (unfortunately) and the closing remark of the book that ‘Some lives leave a mark. Others leave a stain’ (page 242) could just as well be referring to the ‘stain’ of his own publication. Where Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds exhibition caused infamy through heated, but valuable, public debate that academics also engaged with, Charles Saatchi has missed an opportunity to have such a meaningful public debate about death and mortality; I suspect the legacy of his book will reflect its title.
Reviewed by Dr Hannah Rumble, a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Exeter. She sits on the editorial board for the journal ‘Mortality’ and on the Association for the Study of Death and Society’s (ASDS) Council. Her research primarily concerns contemporary innovations for corpse disposal such as ‘natural burial’ and has previously conducted qualitative research on the socio-economic issues arising from funeral expenses in contemporary Britain with former colleagues at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society (CDAS).
Hannah’s home page can be found here.
Correspondence to Dr Hannah Rumble
Harris, Mark. 2008. Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Schribner.
King, Melanie. 2008. The Dying Game: A Curious History of Death. Oxford: Oneworld.
Roach, Mary. 2003. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. London: Penguin.
Wellcome Collection. 2012. Death: A Picture Album. London: Wellcome.