This winsome review essay draws our attention to what sounds like a fascinating new book I must read, Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton UP, 2015), 711pp.
In reading the review, I am put in mind of several similar books I have noted on here over the years, beginning with what remains one of the most moving and compelling: Juliet du Boulay, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. Boulay's book is an anthropological study of life in the Greek mountains in the latter part of the 20th century. As such she examines a great deal besides death customs, but those remain some of the most fascinating chapters in her lovely and lyrical study.
I have made note on here (and elsewhere) several times over the years of books treating dying, death, and the dead, including our changing funerary practices and treatment of the grieving.
In particular, go here for my interview with the Orthodox deacon and his wife, Mark and Elizabeth Barma, discussing their book A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition. They are doing rare but incredibly important work in offering alternatives to "professional" burial practices today that have so often been stripped of any real meaning beyond bourgeois sentimentality.
The importance of Christians offering an unabashedly Christian witness to the dignity of the dying and the dead, and to their immortal souls which need our prayers and not our decadent and indulgent "celebration of life" pseudo-liturgies in the local pub, is especially brought home to us by Candi Cann's book,Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century.
Cann's book is a fascinating anthropological and sociological analysis that reveals, inter alia, the necessity humans have for rituals surrounding the dead; and if churches won't provide them in an eschatologically robust fashion, then substitutes will be found, no matter how cringe-worthy they may seem to some of us. I discussed Cann's book here in some detail.