Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die

~by Michael Largo
2006 Bram Stoker Award Winner

I apparently have some fairly morbid interests. Thinking about all the fascinating material that I've read (both fiction and nonfiction) about death, dying, human survival, suicide, near-death experience, afterlife traditions, etc., one might think I'm a bit obsessed. I blame my mother. (Not really, but she does share the interest and has since she was a young girl.)

That being said, Final Exits finds a welcome place in my collection as a well researched and documented work complete with illustrations. Although I didn't find the book as humorous as the author purported it to be, the fun and irreverence doesn't stop at the fantastic cover design. Michael Largo has done a tremendous amount of research into what exactly is found on death certificate and presents his findings in a very accessible way.

Well, mostly. Perusing and browsing the book works much better than trying to find specific information within it. National park deaths? Look under "Deep Fried." Spiders? Under "P" for "Poisonous Spiders." But poisonous snakes? Make sure to turn to the entry for "Snake Handlers." Unfortunately, there is no index; serendipity often plays a major role in finding particular facts. But what information is found is fascinating, if at times understandably frightening. And every entry is documented and cited.

According to Largo, "in 1700 there were less than one hundred causes of death described on death certificates, while today there are over three thousand." He certainly doesn't cover all three thousand causes of death, choosing instead to focus on some of the more unusual ways, people, and accompanying stories. In addition to the "encyclopedic" A-Z entries, he has included his sources, bibliography, and a "Postmortem" section exploring some of the interesting differences between death in the 1700s and death today.

I'm not sure that I've gained "two extra years of life" promised by reading this book, but I have learned quite a few fun facts to spout at opportune, and inopportune times. Actually, I might just lose a few years because of it; I had one friend make me promise not to relate anything from the book in his presence or potentially forfeit my physical well-being. My mom, however, loved it.