Sep 9, 2009

Cemetery Stories by Katherine Ramsland

Cemetery Stories by Katherine Ramsland

The subtitle says it all – Cemetery Stories is about Haunted Graveyards, Embalming Secrets, and the Life of a Corpse After Death. It’s divided into three sections: “Workers of the Dead”, about undertakers, funeral home directors, embalmers, and the work they do; “Cemeteries, Tombs and Traditions”, which is pretty self-explanatory; and “Whispers and Shadows in the Night”, devoted to strange stories that have happened in or around cemeteries.

This description probably reminds you of Stiff by Mary Roach: Cemetery Stories was actually published a few years before, and from what I gather they aren’t actually that similar. While Stiff is mainly focused on what happens to human bodies after death, this book is mainly centred on funeral traditions (though there are some... unforgettable, let's say, bits about decaying corpses).

I have to say I wish I had read Stiff instead anyway, because the truth is that I just didn’t enjoy Cemetery Stories all that much. My main complaint is the structure: when I told you about the three parts, it all sounded very well-organized, didn’t it? Well, sadly it isn’t really. The three main sections are divided into further smaller sections, and none of them have any depth or really go anywhere. What this book truly is is a collection of short anecdotes about funerals, corpses, graveyards, and ghosts, and a few of them weren’t even interesting anecdotes.

The last section was the most chaotic, and I swear I’m not saying this because of the whole I-don’t-really-believe-in-ghost thing. I like reading about them, but some of the stories were just…pointless. I didn’t even understand what the strange happenings were supposed to be. Then others would end just when they were starting to get interesting. There’s also the writing style: there’s conversational, and then there’s careless-and-in-need-of-good-editing. Cemetery Stories borders on the second, I’m afraid.

Another thing that I found off-putting were the comments the author would sometimes make. I’m not sure if they were meant to be attempts at humour or what, but they can be described as extremely unfortunate at best (and disclaimer: I actually like dark humour). Example:
As part of a research assignment (not for witchcraft), I once witnessed an autopsy in progress. As I came into the sterile medical lab, I noticed bodies being prepared on several steel tables with holes for drainage. Two had already been cut open, including an obese woman, and the sight of her layers of fat reminded me of a whale. These people just didn’t look human.
First of all, comparing overweight people to whales: now there’s a novel simile. I’m sure nobody has heard that one before. Secondly, if I were feeling charitable I would assume that she means that dead bodies during an autopsy don’t look human, and not that obese people don’t look human. But the simple fact that it’s ambiguous is telling enough.

Not everything was bad, though: there were a few interesting stories about graveyards from all over the world, including the one about Oscar Wilde’s grave that Jenny shared the other day. Only it didn’t include the last bit, and Jenny tells it better anyway. So click the link and read it. You know you want to.

Sigh. Can’t love them all, right? On to my next book.

I'll leave you with a bit I won’t soon forget (warning: it’s pretty gruesome):
Whatever the case is, people who arrive at a death scene for a removal have to be prepared for anything. I heard of one situation where the police were called to investigate an overpowering odor in an abandoned building. They went in and found a male corpse lying spread-eagled and facedown on the floor of an apartment. He was in pretty bad shape; his soft tissues had decayed to the point that his skin, from his face to his lower torso, had glued him to the spot. They tied to pick him up, but he didn’t budge. They had to call for help and actually use shovels to finally pry him loose.
I’ve just typed this up as an attempt to exorcise it from my mind. I’m not sure whether it worked.

(Have you posted about this book too? If so, let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)


  1. Hey no fair exorcising it from YOUR mind by putting it in OURS!!! :--) Those quotes pretty much sold me on never picking up this book! :--)

  2. lol,I DID include a warning :P I could have handled the fact that it was gruesome if not for everything else. But the everything else really ruined it. I still want to pick up Stiff, though!

  3. I'm sure this is far too graphic for me. Stiff sounds very interesting, but I'm too scared to try it.

  4. Ugh. Not very nice. People can be so stupid and unthinking about the things they write. I am v. squeamish, so even apart from the insensitivity, I know this wouldn't do for me. Even if it does include a story about Oscar Wilde, which I am ALWAYS up for.

  5. Gore has never bothered me much, so while your quotes are gruesome, I could get through it. What I couldn't get through would be the scattered thoughts, the insensitivity and poor writing. I hate it when I get into a book that lets me down, but does reaffirm that I do have a critical side!

  6. Judging from others, I must be one of the few (so far) who loves gore. Seriously. But I think that my taste borders on bad tastes sometimes.

    For example, your last tidbit of sharing...I couldn't stop picturing the scene as if it was in a Troma film. I admit, I almost chuckled. It just sounds so far out there, you know? Like the guy ends up getting pulled off the floor and *gasp* is a zombie.

    I know, I know. It's real. Real life. Real person(s). And if it was me who stumble upon the person my reaction would be quite different.

    I'm only put off by the book because of the writing. If you thought it was careless and poorly written, well, there's too many books to waste time.

    Thanks for the anecdotes though. :)

  7. Of course you gave us a warning but I had to go and read that bit! yikes... At least it wasn't close to bedtime :)

    The book sounds a bit interesting but I don't know that I'd really follow up on this one. I am guessing there may be others that touch on the same subject.

  8. I read this & felt pretty much the same way you did, but then every book I've read by this author seems sort of random & chaotic. I'm not sure why I keep picking them up.

  9. Yeah, I don't think this is the book for me either.

  10. Guess you can't win 'em all, but it sure would be nice to, huh? Do not-so-good books help us appreciate the good ones even more? Not really sure...but it helps to think that way anyway. ;)

    I'm hoping to read Stiff, too! Hopefully for RIP...but then, I want to read about a hundred books for RIP...

  11. That's too bad this one didn't meet expectation. It sounded like it might have potential from your description. I really enjoyed Stiff.

  12. Sorry to hear it wasn't the best :( I've had high hopes for this one ever since you mooched it! (Yes, I stalk you on Bookmooch too ;) Oh well...

    Are you going to read Stiff still? I have it on my RIP list. I've been dying to read more Mary Roach ever since I read Bonk. I just loved that book!!

  13. Skipped the last quote...don't need to have nightmares!!

  14. That is disgusting. Ugg! I can't get that image out of my head now. Thanks for creating my nightmare early for me Nymeth.LOL.

    Sorry to hear the book wasn't for you. I don't know if I would have read it. When I was younger, my friend used to work for his dad's company which was an undertakers, so I had to listen to my fair share of gore back then.

  15. :( such an interesting topic-- so sad it isn't fabulous as a book. : (

  16. These people just didn’t look human.

    So creaky a whole quart of oil wouldn't help it.

  17. Okay, so I'm glad I read this post after eating... so very nearly read it whilst eating my fish and chips!

  18. Oh I don't think I would like this book at all. This book seems to be trying to be unique and memorable with the topic and style, but sounds like it falls flat. I think I'd rather read Stiff again. I loved that book and thought Roach did an amazing job with the material. Glad for your honest thoughts on this one.

  19. Amanda: From what I hear Stiff is pretty graphic too. I'll let you know if I read it :P

    Jenny: You tell that story better anyway :P

    Sandy: I'm okay with gore most of the time, but for some reason that bit got to me. But yes, the other things are big no-nos. And lol, in a way it IS a relief to find a less than satisfying book from time to time :P

    Christina: No such thing as bad taste! To each their own, really.

    Iliana: Yes - and Stiff definitely sounds like it's much better.

    Caitlin: It's too bad this is a problem with all of her books. I'll probably avoid them in the future!

    Bermudaonion: I'm glad I'm not alone!

    Debi: It does help to think that! I hope you'll read Stiff and let me know if I should :P

    Literary Feline: It really did sound like it has potential. Ah well...

    Chris: lol! You're welcome to stalk me there :P And yes, I think I will read Stiff!

    Lenore: lol, fair enough :P

    Vivienne: Well, this time I DID warn you :P And I can imagine the stories your friend would tell!

    She: I was very sad :( It looked so promising!

    Loren Eaton: So true, lol.

    Bart: lol! I'm glad your fish and chips were eaten safely :P

    Zibilee: Exactly. There were some sections in particular that were trying way too hard to be edgy or something. I WILL read Stiff, though!

  20. I dont know if i'd enjoy this one. Anything about corpses really freaks me out.
    I prefer ghosts :)
    Great review! I didnt read that second quoted passage, thanks for the warning! lol.

  21. Love the title; not sure I'd want to read the book though :)

  22. So first the book about Edwardians living near a cemetery and Victorian/Edwardian death rituals, and now a book about called Cemetery Stories. Am I sensing a theme this week?

  23. Stiff is a fantastic has just the right tone. There are a few explicit scenes, but Roach obviously did her research and is honestly curious about things. She's also funny.

  24. Sounds interesting! I'm not sure if I'd want to read it though...but then it makes a good RIP Challenge read, don't you think so? :P

  25. Doesn't it make you wonder how some books get through the editing process and end up on shelves in this condition? I don't understand why publishers put out books that at least appear to have bypassed a good editing process.

    It is too bad really because the idea of this book sounds like one that had real promise and probably could have delivered if it weren't so chaotic.

  26. Nymeth, you find the most interesting books! I liked the concept behind this one - when you first described it, it sounded very promising.

  27. Naida: I'd recommend skipping this one, then! Definitely more corpses than ghosts :P

    Diane: The title was the best part :P

    Heidenkind: I only wish I could have continued the theme with Her Fearful Symmetry!

    softdrink: I promise to read Stiff!

    Melody: I'm sure it would for some. Just not for me :)

    Carl: It definitely does make me wonder!

    Belle: The concept was good, yes. If only the execution had been better!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.