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The Book of Resting Places
by Thomas Mira y Lopez
Published 2017 by Counterpoint
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619021235

By Noah Sanders

It is a true pleasure to engage with a book like Thomas Mira y Lopez’s The Book of Resting Places, a collection of essays that chronicles—in the wake of his father’s passing—his obsession with where our dead are laid to rest. Where so much writing on death piles on saccharine platitudes, Mira y Lopez’s writing is fueled by both sadness and a sly, caustic anger burning just beneath the surface. Coupled with his keen eye for observation and a fascinating breadth of subject matter, The Book of Resting Places becomes a refreshingly honest and critical look at death, grieving, and how burial becomes a our means to remembering, and forgetting, those we’ve lost.

The impetus for Mira y Lopez’s deep exploration of how we bury our dead and what exactly it means is the death of his father from a series of strokes in 2006. The opening essay, “Memory, Memorial” sets the tone for the entirety of the book. Mira y Lopez visits his mother in the rural Pennsylvania home she now lives alone in with only her poodle for company. They visit his “dad’s tree”—an Ohio buckeye planted by his parents when they purchased the home, now repurposed as a memorial to his deceased father. The simple ritual—walking to the tree, admiring the tree, mourning his father—one Mira y Lopez in his cynical way immediately admits to caring little for. The tree has become a symbol of the healthy man his father was in life, not the shriveled husk he became as death inched closer and closer. In enshrining his memory within the healthy tree, Mira y Lopez believes his mother is choosing to “remember him as she prefers: as strong and healthy instead of decaying.”

The Book of Resting Places is about death but approached from the angle of how we, the grieving survivors, use burial as a means to memorialize, to remember, to forget those we’ve lost. The author explores catacombs in Rome, an unearthed cemetery in Tucson, a death artifact collector’s store in the desert—each subject a catalyst for Mira y Lopez to intertwine his knowledge of classic literature, history and the sharp pangs of his own grief into keen, if not occasionally abrasive interpretations of what it means to be “put to rest.” In “The Eternal Comeback” Mira y Lopez and a friend visit Alcor, a cryogenics storage vault in Scottsdale, AZ. The author never dabbles in the platitudes so often associated with death, and though an essay on cryogenics could quickly devolve into “how weird is this shit” (and the essay certainly entertains the notion) Mira y Lopez puts his hangups on the shelf and writes a stunning piece on what it means to accept, even want the possibility of living forever. “To delay the acceptance of what’s lost harms the lives that survive that loss,” he writes, “Death remains one of the words I can think of for which the adjective universal actually holds. How lonely would it be to want to exist outside of that?”

Mira y Lopez’s honesty about death, about his own failures as a son, as a man struggling to remember his father for who he was and not what he became physically allows it to transcend so much of the cotton-candy fluff that gets written about dying. His father’s death has left him angry, cynical even, with himself and his actions in the months that preceded his passing. The Book of Resting Places is the author’s attempt to grapple with his own regrets and his own sadness. As with death, there’s no sunshine-y ending to these essays, rather just the grim realization that no matter how many trees, or catacombs or frozen bodies with throw out in the hope that our loved ones will exist, somehow, after they’ve passed, in the end, all we’re left with is scant, almost arbitrary memories. “I have learned the hard way,” he writes, “that when someone you love dies, the real shame is that your memory of them dies as well.” We bury, cremate, build memorials for the dead because we want to keep them in our minds in a certain way. Death is hard on the living, and though Mira y Lopez might be too cynical, too educated to buy into the human need to immortalize some aspects of our loved ones, he comes to a simple understanding of just why we do: “When it comes down to it, you do what you do to survive.”