From time to time, we will post short reviews of death-related books we’ve been reading and found interesting. The first one of these is a book I’m currently reading: Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife by Mary Roach, also the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (which sounds amazing but I have yet to read).
Six Feet Over is, in Mary Roach’s own words:
A book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.
But it is so much more than just an exploration of the philosophical idea of a soul. Six Feet Over is an utterly hilarious and engaging whistle-stop-tour of the quacks, hoaxes and genuine researchers who have attempted to prove the existence of life after death. Everything from Hindu reincarnation to Victorian mediums and modern scientific studies of near-death experiences is covered, by way of diversions into neuroscience, the Moulin Rouge ‘Fartiste’ La Petomane, and fun facts about sea urchins, some of whom use their sucker-tipped feet to hold seaweed parasols over themselves for shade.
In short, this is a book for those whose curiosity knows no bounds and are interested in everything, as Mary Roach herself clearly and enthusiastically is.
While a book about death and what may happen after could be sombre and dry, Six Feet Over is written with wit, clarity and sardonic good humour as well as a refreshing dose of scepticism (that’s ‘skepticism’ for our US readers). In a world where anecdotes ‘proving’ Heaven become best-seller books and mediums pack out stadium venues to deliver cryptic messages and cold-reading, Mary Roach is a breath of fresh air. She does not set out to debunk the paranormal in the same way that Michael Shermer or Richard Wiseman might, but she looks at each account and ‘proof’ with common-sense reasoning and takes nothing on faith.
While the book does look at serious research into near-death experiences and other such afterlife encounters, carried out by academics at the University of Virginia and the University of Arizona amongst other places, I feel that Mary Roach is at her best when recounting the absurd and larger-than-life details of historic eccentrics such as Duncan MacDougall, who in 1901 became the first person to try and weigh the soul of a dying man, and later went on to attempt to discover the precise colour and size of the soul. It was this weighing experiment that led to the well-known urban legend (and Hollywood movie) that the soul weighs 21 grams, but his results were more likely due to random errors in the equipment and have never been successfully replicated.
For me, one of the highlights of the book is the chapter on the heyday of Victorian mediumship, complete with table-knocking and ectoplasm-spewing. I knew that it was faked, but what I did not know was that companies openly advertised effects and equipments that ‘mediums’ could buy to enhance their performances! Mary Roach writes:
Spirit Table Lifting Aids were available for $12 by mail order from the likes of the Ralph E. Sylvestre Company (our effects are being used by nearly all prominent mediums, brags the 1901 catalogue). Other helpful items included Telescopic Reaching Rods, self-playing trumpets and Luminous Materialistic Ghosts (appears gradually, floats about room and disappears).
Ectoplasm, that spiritual substance that looked a lot like gauze or cheesecloth (or in some cases animal entrails) that was secreted by various mediums in their seances, is explored pretty thoroughly in one chapter, and I was intrigued to learn that my very own Cambridge University Library apparently possesses some in a box in the Archives (item SPR.197.1.6 ‘Alleged Ectoplasm), described as being ten feet of satiny cotton with red-brown bloodstains on it. Not what your average undergraduate might want to check out, but a fascinating testimony to the variety of the Library’s collections.
I don’t want to give too much more away because I think Six Feet Over is so interesting you’ll want to read it for yourself. Funny and fascinating, I’d say that it is the perfect light reading for a deathly-minded type to take on their summer holidays!