Joseph and Celice, a married couple in their fifties, both zoologists, return one day to the coastal dunes where, thirty years before, they had first made love. There they are attacked and beaten to death by a robber. From this starting point, the novel traces three trajectories: their married life, from their meeting as graduate students working at this beach; the course of their last day, traced backwards, or undone, until they are back in bed, asleep, that morning; and the first week of their death until they are found and taken away by the police. The changes that take place as their bodies decay are meticulously described. At the end of the novel, nine days after their death, the grass has recovered and there is no sign they were ever there.


The last words of this moving and sobering novel, "These are the everending days of being dead," suggest a profoundly secular view of death (and life): individual humans are negligible in the context of biological time, and the shocking disfigurements of decomposition are, on any scale but the human, an efficient and exquisite continuation of life.

There is more here, though. Just before dying, Joseph manages to reach out and grasp his wife's leg. This final gesture of love outlives them both, survives rain, insects, and seagulls, and is destroyed only when police intervene. It is recognized by their daughter, aimless and indifferent in her twenties, who has to identify the bodies. This "light touch of his finger on her leg" makes a greater impression on her even than the condition of their corpses (p.157). Pointing at once to the brutality of nature and the inescapable reality of cultural heredity (of love, that is), Crace writes that "their deaths were her beginning" (p. 159).

Crace frames his exploration of their lives and deaths as a "quivering," a centuries-old funerary practice no longer observed. At such a wake, the lives of the dead are traced backwards in the kind of narrative resurrection that Crace reenacts in this novel. Even as he presents the afterlife as the unconscious immortality of matter, Crace reminds us of alternative mysterious patterns of meaning. His "scientists in love" dismiss them as superstition (p. 171), but Crace impresses on us the effects of human imagination and, maybe, faith, making this a powerfully thought-provoking examination of life, death, and the limits of our capacity to understand either.


First published: 1999 (London: Viking Penguin). Being Dead was shortlisted for the 1999 Whitbread Novel of the Year Prize and won the National Book Critcs Circle Award (2000).


Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count