The Pharaohs were buried with their wealth for use in the next world: the object more likely to be placed in British coffins by grieving widows is denture fixative. Meanwhile, in one African country, adjacent questions on a tax form ask "Do you have any children?" and "Are any of them still alive?"

Just when you thought death was the last remaining taboo, along comes a clutch of books dealing with its indignities, jollities and inescapability. The above insights come from Dancing on the Grave by the anthropologist Nigel Barley (Abacus Pounds 8.99). He surveys the amazingly varied rituals associated with the disposal of the body and relations between the worlds of the quick and the dead. Javanese families photograph themselves with the corpse. Funerals in Madagascar can involve fights between men and bulls and orgiastic sex.

Two other books take us back to dying. While the author of the first, Sherwin B Nullanel, writes from an American standpoint, his descriptions of the commonest causes of death have a universal fascination. "Old age" is a medically unacceptable, even illegal diagnosis. Pneumonia and cardiac failure normally substitute.

But in How We Die (Vintage Pounds 6.99), he also maps the other routes: Alzheimers, Aids and cancer - with murder, accident and suicide. He doesn't pander to the morbid; he teaches and explains, reassuring subjects or their carers who want to understand.

Many people say they want a quick death. In their documentary A Good Death (Routledge Pounds 13.99), Michael Young and Lesley Cullen make it clear that it's often the slow one that's the good one. It gives the subject and those around time to order matters and to adjust. The authors base their research on interviews with 14 cancer patients in the East End of London and their relatives, medics and hospice workers. But they are also prescriptive, stressing the need for doctors to be more informative, for funerals to be personal, and for us all to be supportive.

Turning to the other extremity of our life's span, I normally find lyrical memoirs of Irish childhoods fairly resistible. Not so with Irish-American schoolteacher Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (Flamingo Pounds 5.99). Indeed, it's easy enough to see why this harrowing, hilarious account of what was not only a miserable, Irish childhood but "worse yet, a miserable Irish Catholic childhood" should have won the Pulitzer Prize and now be in the bestseller charts. Often rude, it's a marvellously buoyant read - and, provided you know which bits you're quoting, it could be a provocative teaching resource.

A more obvious resource is the hefty Penguin Book of Historical Speeches, edited by Brian MacArthur (Penguin Pounds 9.99). The selected speeches all marked (or initiated) key steps in our civilisation and range, literally, from Moses to Mandela. In between, we veer from the sublime (Jesus preaching the Beatitudes, Mahatma Gandhi advocating non-violence and Martin Luther King's dreaming) to the mere political (Cromwell, Robespierre and Lincoln). Hitler is in, once. So too is Lenin. No Thatcher, no John Major.


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