- Death, Dying and Bereavement: A Hong Kong Chinese Experience
Edited by two professors at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration of the University of Hong Kong, this new book-with its detailed index, ample endnotes, and Chinese characters embedded in the text-is a veritable encyclopedia of information on a topic that has hardly been touched by Western academia. Although highly relevant to the understanding of Chinese religion and society, beliefs and practices surrounding death and dying are not core issues in scholarly studies, and besides an edited volume on practices in late imperial and communist China and various art historical studies that by necessity deal with tombs, there is only one recent article discussing Daoist mortuary practice-and that article focuses on the early period, far removed from the twentieth century.1Death, Dying and Bereavement thus fills a crying need for more information and detailed studies.
The volume consists of 23 contributions by 34 authors. Most of the authors, like the editors, are involved in social work, either as professors, Ph.D. candidates, bereavement counselors, or hospice workers. Another big group comes from the medical profession, including specialists in behavioral health, psychology, and cognitive science; physicians working in geriatrics and palliative care; as well as pathologists and other specialists. A third, considerably smaller group is made up of humanistic scholars, such as professors of death studies, Buddhism, and Daoism. All contributors are Hong Kong Chinese and live and work there, thus having ample opportunity to connect their academic interest with practical observation and experience.
Indeed, one thing that makes this book so very readable-aside from the fact that most contributions are short and to the point-is that the articles are potent combinations of theoretical presentations, sociological data, and personal stories. Almost every piece has relevant case reports, both from subjects consulted in interviews and from the contributors themselves, that give a real-life impression of the issues discussed. Not only do these stories break up the flow of information and analysis, but they also let real people speak on issues that are, after all, sooner or later essential to everybody's life. The design of the papers throughout is, therefore, very successful, creating a volume that is as enjoyable as it is informative and thought-provoking.
The 23 contributions, after a separate introduction by the editors, are spread out over three parts: Death, Dying, and Bereavement. The first two parts contain eight articles each; the last has five plus an editors' conclusion. With the exception [End Page 377] of one work, "Walking a Tightrope: The Loss and Grief of Parents with a Child Suffering from Cancer in Shanghai" (ch. 17), they all are set in and center on Hong Kong. Most suggest that what they find there is also generally true for Chinese in other communities, but some also make a point of comparing Hong Kong to Chinese customs elsewhere. Not only carefully aware of the limits of the Hong Kong experience, the authors also are generally very well informed about death-related practices and studies in other countries, so that most contributions offer a valuable comparable perspective on important concerns.
Each part of the book presents a potent mix of different kinds of studies. The first part, on death (pp. 15-135), for example, has reports on personal experiences and cultural studies of Buddhist and Daoist perspectives combined fruitfully with the sociological examination of death rituals, evaluations of clinical practice, and theoretical explorations of what a "good death" might mean. It also has a pathologist's report on autopsy in Hong Kong, including legal requirements and relatives' reactions. The second part, on dying (pp. 137-250), contains clinical as well as sociological reports on palliative care, a description and evaluation of hospice work and its organization, a discussion of euthanasia in the Chinese context, and several in-depth evaluations of end-of-life care and the last month of life. Part...