This is a little gem I picked up several years ago in my favourite (and much missed) second hand book shop which used to be on the Bristol Road in Selly Oak. I got it because it looked interesting and I like poetry, but also because the friends I was with were amused by my macabre selection! Little did I know how useful it would go on to be.
The book is an anthology of quotes, prose extracts and poetry related to death. The book is divided into themes including ‘Views and Attitudes’, ‘Graveyards and Funerals’, ‘Hereafters’ and ‘Love and Death’. It doesn’t shy away from especially difficult topics either, including chapters on ‘Suicide’ and ‘Children’. The editor D. J. Enright says that while reading for the anthology he was ‘moved to the thought that on no theme have writers shown themselves more lively’, there are professional writers and the voices of lay people alike in the volume because there are no real experts on death.
I’ve found myself reaching for this book on numerous occasions whilst doing reading for my research, for instance upon learning of the influence which ‘The Graveyard Poets’ in the 18th century had on attitudes towards death. I’ve also found it helpful for examining the views towards death held by some of the people whose graves I’m studying; for example it includes ‘O may I join the choir invisible’ by George Eliot, two lines of which ‘Of those immortal dead who live again, In minds made better by their presence’ appear on her memorial at Highgate Cemetery. You can read the poem in full here.
The book also includes my favourite poem by Dylan Thomas – ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, a beautiful and poignant piece, which may have been written about his ageing father. I was going to post it here, but it’s still in copyright, so click this link to read!
Although The Oxford Book of Death seems to be out of print, those who want a copy of their own, can find one rather cheaply on Amazon or Abebooks. Do any of my readers own this book, or perhaps know of another death themed anthology? Let me know below!