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Reviewed by:
  • Storia della definizione di morte ed. by Francesco Paolo de Ceglia
  • Maria Conforti
Francesco Paolo de Ceglia, ed. Storia della definizione di morte. Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2014. 686pp. Ill. €55.00 (978-8820-4750-4-8).

In recent decades, after seminal works coming especially from French scholars inspired by the Annales school, such as Philippe Ariès (1974) and Michel Vovelle (1983), the history of death has become a meaningful part of medical history—indeed, of cultural, social, and intellectual history in general.1 Among recent additions to this burgeoning body of literature, the volume edited by Francesco de Ceglia is particularly valuable because it discusses the way “boundaries” of death have been conceptualized at a lay and learned level in different contexts; by so doing, the volume explores the medical and scientific modern definitions and implications of what death is. In his brief introduction, de Ceglia states that the volume is “written by Italian authors … in Italian. … Accordingly, a great attention is devoted to the Italian context” (p. 16). In many senses, this is too modest an approach. The volume presents itself rather as an encyclopedic set of contributions, expanding on a large scale from the points of view of both geography and chronology. In fact, it includes contributions on many non-Western cultures, ranging from Islamic medicine to Chinese attitudes to death, both ancient and modern; and it spans from ancient Mesopotamia to contemporary questions in bioethics and biopolitics. However, the definition of death is in itself a modern issue, born, as many contributions in this volume well show, from the widespread Enlightenment fears concerning premature burial and from a new interest in “medical police” and forensic medicine. Since the book covers a much longer chronology, in its first part—the one dealing with antiquity and the early modern—the focus on the technical or common definition of death is rather blurred, and contributions concern death in general, as a culturally defined event, more than its boundaries.

Given the number of essays—more than thirty—it is unfortunately impossible to mention, let alone do justice to, all of them. Suffice to say that while some of the contributions present brief useful and up-to-date surveys, others offer the reader refreshingly new approaches or contextualizations (see, e.g., the essay by Tommaso Braccini on the Byzantine and Slavic world). Many contributions deal with a first turning point in the medical history of death, the one situated between the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, when the signs of death became a largely debated issue in European medicine, with strong connections with scientific research and biology (see, e.g., the contribution by Lucia De Frenza on death and electrophysiology). The new status of death allowed a reinterpretation in a new frame of ancient knowledge on the end of life, also providing a much-needed social reassurance on the possibility of avoiding the dangers of burying the apparently dead when still alive. A second turning point in medical history, as well as in this volume, is obviously the emergence and acceptance of brain death as more [End Page 554] meaningful than the loss of heart function as the reliable scientific sign of death. The Harvard criteria, published in 1968, have become a benchmark, at least for the Western medical community, and have also elicited a slow change in the way death is perceived at a public level. The book rightly underlines that pulmonary and cardiac activity is still very much part of the contemporary notion of death, as expressed in the literature and the other arts. The article by Stefano Spataro on narratives on death in medical dramas is a meaningful introduction to the way the lay public, and arguably medics as well, perceive death.

A few minor slips in this very rich volume need editing (the reader may be left with a doubt concerning Robert Hook, who is better known today as Hooke). The readership is likely to be wide: it will surely represent a useful tool for Italian-speaking scholars and students. However, as it is, its very richness may be a hindrance to its use, and a few more explicative notes or a clearer statement...


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pp. 554-555
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