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Wednesday, October 27,2010

Death becomes him

Author Largo unearths facts about fatalities

by Bill Castanier

October seems to bring out the “G words”: ghoulish, gruesome, gory. Now, just in time for Halloween, one of the masters of writing about those words has another one for you to consider: God.


Florida author Michael Largo (“Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die”) has added “God’s Lunatics” to his repertoire of books that delve into shocking topics. Sort of a “Mondo Cane” of the oddities and often frightening characteristics of religion, “Lunatics” is also a lighthearted and funny look at religion in all its reiterations.


Largo examined how creativity and reckless abandonment cross paths in “Genius and Heroin,” a snapshot of our culture and the love/hate madness of creative individuals , such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jimi Hendrix and Ernest Hemingway. He has also written “Portable Obituary,” which chronicles some of the more unusual published death statements.


“The study of dying and living in society is a snapshot of history,” Largo said. “It tells you, in a haiku way, what was happening at the particular time.”


“Lunatics” is eclectic, covering everything from wizards to mystics and from ecstasy to ectoplasm, along with the old reliable serpent-worship. The entries are in a handy alphabetical format with most shorter than a page or two, just perfect for bathroom readers. There’s enough in the book to pretty much offend anyone, regardless of his or her religious persuasion.


“God’s Lunatics” starts, naturally enough, with “abracadabra,” describing how the phrase was first written as a chant and then transferred to an amulet, with the letters spelling the word in an inverted pyramid. The charm was worn to ward off “military fever.” The final entry is Zoroastrianism, the religion devoted to the teachings of the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster.


By the way, Largo spent 17 years in Jesuit Schools. He did not say if any of the entries grew out of his experiences there.


Largo is the kind of guy who likes to pore over death certificates looking for cause of death. He says “the final moment” fascinates him.


For example, he points to the fact that from the 1790s to 1880s “ecstasy” (not the modern drug) was named as the cause of death on almost 20,000 death certificates in the United States. It was often attributed to religious fanaticism, which he details in his new book.


Largo said it was while researching “Final Exit,” which catalogues some of the more unusual ways people have died, that he was motivated to write about how religion and death overlap.


“There is sort of symmetry between religion and death,” he said, pointing to graveyards and churches. “Studying death helps explore what drives us, especially our fear of mortality. People have to believe in something.”


Largo said that over time advances in science have changed how we record death. In the 1700s, for instance, he said that there were only hundreds of recorded causes of death, and “fever” was often listed as the sole cause; today, there would be 400 to 500 variations just to describe that one aspect alone.


“We have new names for old ways of dying,” he said, pointing out that with the advance of technology, we also have developed new ways to die, such as “tumble blogging,” which is sort of blogging yourself to death (which shouldn’t be confused with tumblr blogging).


He also says that modern society is still squirrelly about death. When President Gerald R. Ford died, Largo said he conducted an experiment, collecting and comparing hundreds of different news sources. His conclusion: “Not one listed the cause of death.”

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