Death and Dying in Australia

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Death and Dying in Australia
Allen Kellehear (Ed)
Oxford University Press, (2000)
ISBN: 0 19 551150 6. 354 pages plus index. RRP: A$43.95

This book has contributions from 29 people, mostly Australian, looking at death and dying at the end of the twentieth century in Australia. Although several books have looked at dying in Australia, this book looks at predominantly the sociology of death and dying. This book is a rich source of information which compliments the other works to come out of Australia in the late 1990s regarding death and society. 

The book is divided into three. The first section looks at death including mortality, cultural diversity, funerals and burial customs and the role of belief systems. The second section looks at dying and importantly concentrates on dying in predictable ways. Other than suicide, it does not look at traumatic or sudden death in any detail. The issues covered include cancer, HIV/AIDS, children and ageing. There is an important chapter by Michael Barbato on the phenomena that occur around death. 

The third section looks at death and the professions. An interesting omission, especially in the context of the changes of the twentieth century in looking after the dead, is no contribution from anyone in the funeral industry. There are however contributions from palliative medicine, palliative nursing, allied health, pastoral care, law, philosophy and parapsychology.

The overall strength of this book is the wonderful group of contributors who have been marshalled by Professor Kellehear to contribute. Philip Adams, with the wonderful line “death helps prevent overcrowding”, has his usual laconic look at society and its relationship to a difficult topic. John Collins’ chapter on childhood death is an excellent overview.

Most poignant, however, are the personal viewpoints. There are contributions by a woman dying of metastatic breast cancer and a mother who lost a teenage son to leukaemia. In the midst of erudite dissertations, it is arresting to be reminded of the overwhelmingly raw and human face of mortality. At the end, it is a personal journey and whatever society’s norms, that journey reflects the life of the person dying.

For a book that is about death and dying in Australia, it is sad that there isn’t a greater coverage of the belief systems and rituals surrounding indigenous death. For a uniquely Australian account this would certainly strengthen the book. There is also little discussion about maternal and neonatal mortality, traumatic death (especially war) and the attrition of social upheaval.

Overall, this book is excellent reading. The style flows well and the editing has been tight, producing a work for which there is a ready market. It is a book worth having on the bookshelf for anyone associated with people facing a life-limiting illness.

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