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Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 5, 2009

I think I've just received the ultimate in John Reading. "The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End" (Ballantine Books, $18), by humorist/scholar, Harold Sheckter is a delight to dip into during daily ablutions.

Sheckter has researched the subject of death from the earliest days (we died back then too) to the present.

He shovels out lots of detail on subjects like wills, the hospice experience (titled going out with comfort and style) and the embalmers art.

One delightful chapter deals with what famous people said just before they passed on.

P.T. Barnum supposedly said "How were the circus receipts today at Madison Square Garden?"

Actor Errol Flynn said "I've had a hell of a lot of fun, and I'm enjoyed every minute of it."

George Bernard Shaw was terse: "Well, it will be a new experience, anyway."

Beethoven, deaf for a long time, said "I shall hear in heaven."

Unfortunately, famous last words are sometimes bogus. Schecter delights in debunking them. I always loved the one I heard about Oscar Wilde, who supposedly said, "I'm in a duel to the death with this wallpaper. One of us must go." No so, says researcher Schecter. Wilde said that a month before his death.

Another amusing topic is people who fear they will be buried alive, which led to a Victorian limerick I've never heard and I've heard lots of them:

"There was a young man at Nunhead

Who awoke in his coffin of lead.

'It was cozy enough,'

He remarked in a huff,

'But I wasn't aware I was dead.'"

Sheckter also deals with a topic that never occurred to me: how children deal with fear of dying. With humor, it turns out, as Scheckter winds up with a poem that was recited by children many years ago:

"Did you ever think when a hearse goes by,

That you may be the next to die?

They take you to the family plot,

And there you wither, decay and rot.

They wrap you in a bloody sheet,

And then they bury you six feet deep.

All goes well for a week or two,

And then things start to happen to you.

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out

They eat your guts and they spit them out

One of the worms that's not so shy

Crawls in one ear and out one eye..

And then your blood turns yellow-green

And oozes out like sour cream.

Your eyes fall in, your teeth fall out,

Your liver turns to sauerkraut.

So never laugh when a hearse goes by,

For you might be the next to die."

And now to the regional front. Years back I took some flak from older colleagues for teaching the lyrics of Bob Dylan in my course on metaphysical poets.

Well, I now feel exonerated after having received a new book of scholarly essays from the University of Minnesota Press.

It's "Highway 6 Revisited: Bob Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World" ($22.95 paper), edited by Colleen J. Sheehy and Thomas Swiss.

It's a hefty volume written by eminent poets and scholars like Anne Waldman and Greil Marcus.

Dave Wood is a former vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.