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Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies Hardcover – January 15, 1994

ISBN-13: 978-1883620073 ISBN-10: 1883620074 Edition: 1st

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Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies + Mortuary Confidential: Undertakers Spill the Dirt + Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 709 pages
  • Publisher: Galen Pr Ltd; 1st edition (January 15, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1883620074
  • ISBN-13: 978-1883620073
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #417,791 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Probably the most complete recent book on the physical and cultural aspects of death. Covers everything from embalming, cremation, cryogenics, autopsies, organ donation, anatomical dissection, burials, funerals, decay, cannibalism, body snatching, use of corpses in secret rituals and religious ceremonies. This book sheds light on a subject that our society conveniently buries--literally and figuratively. As the author argues, the topic of death is treated with even more circumspection than pornography.


I plan on being prepared when I croak. That's why I've turned to the definitive book on pushing up daisies, one Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? By Kenneth V. Iserson. Indeed, everything you've ever wanted to know about cashing in your chips is included in this deadly little 709-page tomb, uh, tome—from A, for autopsy (step 2: "A Y-shaped incision that begins at each shoulder or armpit area and runs beneath the breasts to the bottom of the breastbone. The incisions then join and proceed down the middle of the abdomen to the pubis, just above the genitals."), to Z, for zombies (from Haiti, where live burials purportedly take place after an injection of tetrodotoxin, a fish poison that induces a deathlike state in which the victim exhibits no outward response to stimulation.) -- Discover Magazine

Some people will be absolutely fascinated by these details, and other people will be very uncomfortable... so... be advised. -- Terry Gross, Fresh Air, National Public Radio

Take one corpse, and add worms . . . A huge range of queries . . hundreds of questions and answers, that could be subtitled "What you always wanted to know about death, but were afraid to ask." -- New Scientist

This book is too icky for the reading public. -- New York magazine editorial group

More About the Author

Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., MBA, FACEP, FAAEM, FIFEM (1949- ) born in Washington, DC, migrated to the American Southwest at his earliest opportunity. After nearly three decades as a teacher, clinician and bioethicist at The University of Arizona in Tucson, he is now Professor Emeritus of Emergency Medicine at The University of Arizona, Medical Director (Emeritus) of the Southern Arizona Rescue Association (search & rescue), a Supervisory Physician with Arizona's Disaster Medical Assistance Team (AZ-1), and a member of the American Red Cross disaster response team.

The author of hundreds of scientific articles on emergency medicine and biomedical ethics, he has also authored numerous books. His most popular book, "Iserson's Getting Into a Residency: A Guide for Medical Students," is now in its revised, 8th edition. Another, "Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies?" was cited as one of the best reference books by the New York Public Libraries. His latest book, "Improvised Medicine: Providing Care in Extreme Environments," appeared in December 2012 (McGraw-Hill).

Dr. Iserson now limits his medical practice to global and disaster medicine. In the past few years, he has practiced or taught on all seven continents, including 6 months as Lead Physician for the US Antarctic Program, and work with NGOs in rural areas of Central and South America, Zambia, Bhutan, Ghana and South Sudan. He also runs the Project that freely distributes more than 700 Spanish-language PowerPoint presentations on Emergency Medicine.

Customer Reviews

This is one of the best put together books that I have ever read oh the subject.
Shawn P.
This book covers just about everything you ever wanted to know about death and the history of corpse disposal.
S. Porretta
The only reservation I have about this book is the fact that it reads more like a text...very scientific.
M. Young

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Dedman on February 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is probably the single most useful reference work I have beside my desk, and one of the few I've read cover to cover. It contains more details than most of us have ever wanted to know about what happens to bodies after death - including funeral practices, the hows and whys of autopsies, the timeline of rigor mortis and decomposition, tales of cannibalism, body snatching and premature burial... it's all in here. Well-written and well-indexed, too. I cannot recommend it too highly.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Fearless Reviews on April 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover
For most besides the medically-minded, this book will surely fall into the Ooh-Yuck category -- the kind of reference work that tells you volumes of things you didn't know and quite a few that you would probably not have cared to know, but can't forget once you do. Like: Have cadavers historically been used for target practice by weapons manufacturers? You betcha! And have moviemakers ever used cadavers to make their special effects really special? ...
Rest assured, however, that Galen Press (named after the famed Greek physician Galen of Pergamum) and Dr. Iserson have far more profound purposes in mind with the updated edition of this encyclopaedic guide to mortification than inciting ghastly giggles among adolescent boys and presumably mature reviewers. What sets this magnificently researched and dutifully footnoted volume apart from your usual dry-as-dust medical text is its literary sensibility, first noticeable in fourteen artfully titled section heads. I'm Dead -- Now What? covers the definition of death and what usually happens soon afterward; Beauty in Death details the embalming and cosmetic processes of treating cadavers; Souls on Ice takes a detour into the chilly science of cryonics; and Say It Gently anthologizes some sayings, poetry, and epitaphs in honor of the dead. The writing is clear, friendly, and gently humorous throughout, as if the good doctor Iserson were your charming raconteur uncle who just happens to know everything about the dead, and can't wait to tell you. I don?t see how librarians, med students, and mystery and horror writers can live without this one. -- P.MILLER ...
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Kelly Garbato on July 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Of the many books on death and dying that I've read over the past six months, Kenneth Iserson's "Death to Dust" is by far the most comprehensive and enjoyable of the bunch. Weighing in at over 800 pages, "Death to Dust" is truly an encyclopedic approach to the subject.

Iserson divides his discussion into fourteen chapters; the shortest is about eleven pages (the introduction), while the longest is a massive 80+ pages (the average chapter length is about 50 pages). He adeptly covers all aspects of death, dying, grief, mourning, and post-mortem activities and concerns. He discusses practical matters, such as how to arrange a funeral, bodily transport across state lines, embalming, funerary rituals and etiquette, cremation, and advance directives. Iserson even includes a helpful, ten-page "Body-disposal Instructions and Discussion Guide," designed to help the living ease the inevitable burden their next of kin will face when they pass away.

However, "Death to Dust" is not simply a consumer guide. Although he does offer a wealth of practical information, he also launches into more esoteric and macabre discussions. Some chapters are certainly not for the faint of heart. If cannibalism, headhunting, corpse dismemberment, grave robbing, anatomical dissection, autopsies, or putrification give you the heebie-jeebies, read with caution! True to its encyclopedic nature, "Death to Dust" takes care to cover ALL aspects of death and dying - particularly the more unpleasant and morbid topics. Iserson approaches these subjects with a dry sense of humor. Although I thought that his witticisms spiced the book up and made his discussion more entertaining, some audiences might be taken aback by Iserson's (sometimes) light tone.

It's obvious that Iserson (or his editor!
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
All aspects of death and dying are covered here by a pathologist who sees it as his duty to provide for the reading public the reference which has never been available before. The squeamish may find some sections worth skipping, but those who want to understand the biological and cultural realities of Death will want to read every word of this instant classic. If you are going to buy one book covering embalming, burial, cremation, and the legalities of death, make it this one.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By "celadon42" on March 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
To preface, I'm 'only' 30, so it's not like I'm looking to pop off any day now.
Lets be honest, humans do a very serious job of ignoring death and all that it entails. We don't want to see the messy parts, just the gushy greeting card parts where we swear to "never forget," and "always love," the person who is dying. And we certainly do our best to minimize and deny our own mortality. For this reason I think that adults of ever nationality should re-acquaint ourselves with death. Our grandparents were much more familiar with death, dying and the practical aspects thereof(how long can you keep a corpse in the parlor before it really MUST be buried)than we are today. Death has become so 'clean' as to be almost a non-issue.
Having dealt with the death of my own Mom within the past year and half, I can truthfully say it is better to deal with the subject before, than it is during or after. (I first read the book 4yrs ago.)
The personal growth you'll do while reading this book will be of immeasurable value to you. The style in which the book is written keeps the subject from being a gory dramatization of death, and also keeps you from Gothic over sentimentality. There is no better PRACTICAL treatment of so personal an issue on the market. Thank you, Mr. Iverson!
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