The Bookworm Sez: “The Undead” by Dick Teresi

Undead 2c.2012, Pantheon Books   $26.95 / $31.00 Canada     354 pages, includes index

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

You couldn’t click fast enough.

The online push was for organ donors and it seemed like a good idea. Your decision now to make an act of generosity later could save or enhance someone else’s life. Besides… you’d be dead so you really wouldn’t care, right?

Right. But read The Undead” by Dick Teresi, and you may have some things to add to your click.

What defines a time of death?

Are you dead when you stop breathing, or when your heart quits beating?  Is brain-death the absolute end, or is it when there’s no “you” in you?  What determines death?

Every culture through millennia has asked those questions, but the truth is that there’s no answer yet. We think we know when death arrives – but we could be wrong.

For years, Dick Teresi has poked holes in tenets about death. He says he’s made people “uneasy, even angry.”  They defended their “traditional ideas of life and death” but he claims to be “merely a journalist reporting the facts…”

One of those facts, he says “cheerfully,” is that we’re all going to die. Religious beliefs and NDEs offer comfort but “something will kill us eventually.” So how do we know when we go?

Since 1968, when a committee gathered at the Harvard Medical School to “hammer out a set of simple criteria” allowing doctors to determine time of death, it seems as though the focus has been on a “permanently nonfunctioning brain” and not the heart when figuring a finish.

But, asks Teresi, is “brain death” really The End?

Teresi cites studies in which brain dead patients had EEGs. People who are “brain dead” grow, give birth, often breathe on their own, and sometimes only “look sick.”  Most sobering, “dead” organ donors have been observed to have spikes in blood pressure during organ harvesting – and, unlike normal surgeries, anesthesiologists weren’t allowed to administer analgesic.

Horrifying, no doubt. So what can you do to protect yourself?

Read this book, first of all, and learn. Then, have a talk with your doctor about a medical directive. That’s the first place to start before you reach your last place.

In many paragraphs, in many ways, author Dick Teresi acknowledges that his words are going to stir up a storm of controversy. He claims that he’s already lost friends because of his research. He says he’s angered doctors and scientists with the necessary questions he asks in “The Undead,” but he asked anyhow.

Still, there’s nothing maudlin, overly-morbid, or morose here; in fact, this book about death is delightfully lively. Teresi has a biting sense of humor with a dose of the absurd, tempered by willingness to see beauty in sacrifice. Readers who can peer past his troubling main subject will be rewarded by a thoughtful, meaningful look at how we live before we don’t.

Though it’s a definite argument-starter, “The Undead” will make you think about things you never thought you’d consider.  If you’re up for something that’s six-feet deep, this book will surely click with you.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books. For more information, visit



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