Living death


Wakely, Mark. Sweet Sorrow: A Beginner's Guide to Death. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008. ISBN: 0-522-85513-X

'Sweet Sorrow', by Mark WakelyPeople should read this book. It is a very good read. But it is hard to describe or categorise.

The cover captions bring out some of its indefinable qualities. Sweet Sorrow is the title, and the theme that runs throughout — a poignant flavour, a perfume that suggests both presence and absence. It's an evocative sort of book, poetic in its capacity to suggest, invite, hint.

But this is a book about death, and 'the indefinable' seems appropriate here, too.

There is a tradition in Christian theology called apophatic — literally, 'away from the light'. It is a tradition that emphasises what we do not know about the great mysteries. Wakely has some of this in his treatment of death. He outlines a way of approaching this mystery — a map, if you like. But like the maps of old, with their 'here there be dragons', this account includes cautions — 'here there be questions'.

Wakely sets the tone with his personal odyssey. This is a book about his encounter with death.

This personal mood is reinforced with the story (fictitious) of Violet and her elderly father, Hamish. Scattered vignettes help us identify with the events of their life and death, and experience some of their 'sweet sorrow'.

Violet and Hamish are our companions as we follow the writer into the mundane and arcane elements of his own journey.

Wakely has his guides. Joan Didion, the author of The year of Magical Thinking, features prominently. Didion, a widow, writes that 'in time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.'

This brings me to the subtitle, 'A Beginner's Guide To Death'.

Wakely confesses, 'I've always put death in the too hard basket'. There are psychological grounds for this approach, Freud assures us. But there are also traditions that have run counter to it: The Tibetan Book of the Dead and a 15th century text, Ars Moriendi, (The Art of Dying).

In A Beginner's Guide To Death Wakely is in sympathy with Didion's approach to 'read, learn, work it up, go to the literature'. He does something else. He goes to the people who know.

We are introduced to a palliative care physician, Frank Brennan. The companioning approach, recommended by the grief counsellor, Alan Wolfelt, is there in the anecdotal style.

There are conversations with staff at the morgue, detailed descriptions of autopsy and embalming procedures, encounters with funeral directors, and the wry observations of the journalist with his heart in the mix.

There are the reflections by Helen Ennis, curator of an exhibition of photos titled 'Reveries: Photography and Mortality', which included many photos of 'friends and family while they were dying and after they were dead'.

The final caption on the book cover is 'The one book you will want to take with you to the grave'. It claims to be a vade mecum, a companion piece, a reference and resource.

And, for all its detail, Sweet Sorrow has some of the qualities of poetry: imagination, phrases, stories and images, pictures of people and lives, as well as bodies and coffins. We are reminded that this is what death is about. The inescapable loveliness of human beings, Violet's conviction that 'my father was a good man'.

We would not grieve, and funerals would be otiose, if there were not this attachment that we form with one another. With the attachment can come a deep knowing and treasuring of another person. That person was real. That is why we grieve. That is our consolation.

Death is personal and inter-personal. Along with birth, it is the rite of passage. It is the focusing of the mind and heart that can make all thought impossible, as Phillip Larkin writes. Or, it is the sharp moment of loss when love spills from us as from wounds we have long forgotten.

Wakely's book about death is enlivening in its scope and in its particularity. It would fit nicely into the pocket of a shroud, if they had one.

Sweet Sorrow (Melbourne University Publishing)

Richard WhiteRichard White is Director of Bereavement Services, WN Bull Funerals.

Topic tags: Richard White, book review, Sweet Sorrow: A Beginner's Guide to Death, Mark Wakely, ISBN: 0-522-85513-X



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Existing comments

"We would not grieve ... if there were not this attachment that we form with one another."

And if we could not love, we could not become depressed. Depression is the price of love.
Michael Grounds | 20 June 2008

"We would not grieve ... if there were not this attachment that we form with one another."

I would expand in that the depths of grief illuminates the depth of love for another.
Jonah Bones | 20 June 2008

Mark's first book, Dream Home was excellent and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction in 2004.

I believe that Sweet Sorrow surpasses it in excellence. With a soft humour tempered with tact and compassionate understanding he has tackled a subject that most of us prefer to sweep under the carpet.

Let's hope this isn't the last book that is in this gifted writer.
Sue Withers. | 21 June 2008


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