On Writing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial

Speech by Penny Colman at an event celebrating the publication of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, November, 1997


I am particularly happy to have my sister Cam here from San Jacinto, California, and my brother Kip here from Jamestown, New York. The last time I saw them was in June when our mother died. We had learned that she had cancer in mid-February. At that time, I was in the final stages of completing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. I was compiling the end matter, tinkering with the text, taking photographs, writing captions, keying the photographs into the text, checking and double-checking information. So the news of my mother’s illness catapulted me into a situation where I was dealing with my mother’s dying and death at the same time that I was working to bring this book-a book on corpses, coffins, and crypts-to life.


Needless to say, those months were very intense. At one point, I said to my son Stephen, “This is the wrong book to be working on now.” When he replied, “Actually it is the right book,” I was startled. But as we tended to my mother’s dying, death, and burial, I realized that Stephen was right. He was right because after researching and writing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial I was full of useful information and I had gained a measure of calmness about death and the burial process that I shared with my family as we dug her grave, provided our own urn for her cremated remains, and had a funeral procession with a Dixieland band and a fire truck. My mother did not live to see the finished book, but she did see the page proofs of Chapter 8 that opens with the story about her painting of Lazarus that she painted after my father’s death many years ago. Although she could not speak, she could smile, and smile she did.
I call this book my risk-taking book. The first risk I took was even agreeing to write a book about death and burial. I was hesitant because I knew that it would get me close, if not right back into, painful personal experiences, which I had over the years wrestled into a manageable place. But then I would say to myself— maybe it would not have been so painful if I had known more. If people around me had been open and matter-of-fact about death and burial. If they had been willing to think, talk, to answer questions about death and burial. Back and forth I went talking to myself until one day I took a deep breath and said, “I will do it.” Having made the decision, I was determined that the book I wrote would be not only useful, but also engaging, empowering, and beautiful. It would have vitality and universality. Setting such a standard for a book about corpses, coffins, and crypts was the second risk that I took. And I decided to write in the genre known as creative nonfiction that is widely used by writers of nonfiction for adults and that I had used as a journalist and essayist for adults. That allowed me to make myself part of the story and that was the third risk that I took-writing about myself despite my apprehensions about stirring up painful memories.


I did this for several reasons. First, as a writer, I am constantly thinking about the reader, in particular, I think about how I can reach out my hand and say to the reader: “Here is my hand, take it, and we will go through this story together.” Since I knew that some reader would also have painful memories, I decided that it was only fair that I include parts of myself and my experiences in the book. Second, as I reviewed my experiences, I realized that they touched on every topic that I planned to cover and that I could use them as a way to move in and out of the scientific, historical, anthropological, archaeological, and cultural material that I wanted to present. In addition to my own experiences, I included other people’s experiences. This was my fourth risk in the sense that I knew these people were trusting me to use their true stories in a way that honored their experiences. Obviously I assume this responsibility every time I write about another person’s experience. However, most of the people I have written about are dead historical figures. But in this book the people were very much alive, including my sister, and my dentist. Nevertheless, I took on this risk for several reasons, one of which I wrote about in the preface: “I wrote this book because I believe that death, a hard, sad, unavoidable fact of life, is easier to accept when we are able to talk about it and get answers to our questions. When we hear other people’s stories. When we learn about the variety of attitudes and rituals that have existed concerning death and burial. Nobody is immune to death. People die. I will and so will you. But if we are prepared, we can deal with death, however and whenever it happens.”


As an aside I want to note that I deliberately chose to identify people who told me their stories only by the name they typically used, e.g. Peg and Doug, and I did not include any biographical information, e.g. what they did and where they lived. This was part of my overall decision to write in an informal voice, which is also why I used contractions. My goal was create a warm and conversational tone that would invite readers to engage with the text and pictures and think about and reflect on their own experiences. My final risk had to do with all the photographs that you will find in the book-130 to be exact, 80 of which I took as I traveled from Key West, Florida to Rochester, Iowa to Julian, California. This was a risk for many reasons, but mostly because of the sheer scope of the undertaking that kept me constantly fending off nagging self-doubts about my ability to pull off my vision of including evocative photographs that would inform, inspire, and even prompt readers to laugh or cry or say to a friend, “Hey, look at this!” I hope that reading Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts does not make you too queasy or tangle up your emotions too much. Instead, I hope that the book intrigues you and motivates you to think about how you will deal with death, an inevitable part of all our lives.


Understanding death does not necessarily take always our anxieties or fears about our own death, or our sadness about other people’s death but it does help us find ways to continue on with our lives.

There is a whole section in my book on epitaphs that I organized into five categories: poignant, pious, patriotic, historical, and humorous. Here is one of the poignant epitaphs that I found:

When I held you tight, all the stars seems so much brighter, they lit up the night.

Here is one of the humorous epitaphs:

I always said the only way you would get this recipe was over my dead body.

One Response to On Writing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial

  1. Wandering through the library looking for a holiday book, I came across “Corpses, Coffins and Crypts” and took it home to read over the Christmas holiday. My family gave me a few weird looks when they saw the topic. Over the years, we wondered through many cemeteries noting the architecture, prose and history. In Chicago, Rosehill in Chicago has many large monuments and interesting headstones. The view from the entrance to Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii always takes my breathe away. Here is a video from our visit to Kam Fong’s grave at Diamond Head Memorial Park.

    Thanks for sharing your research.
    – April M. Williams

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