Death is the guaranteed ending that we all have in common, but death itself is a social construct that we have no knowledge of beyond the biological. We know not what happens after nor do we understand its process until we’ve lived it and by that point, we’re no longer here to question.
The following books look at our perception of death and challenge how we view it through a more modern lens that questions while presenting bold narratives on this universal topic. From novels to memoirs, this list will open your mind to new ideas.
This novel is centered on a delicate coming of age through sorrow and grief that meld into an elegiac presentation of continuity and strength in the mundane. At the age of 10, Ruby’s brother goes into hospital and this begins a cascade of life altering tragedies. With emphasis from the past and the struggles associated with continuing in the present, this novel challenges how we come to terms with grief and the strength necessary to keep going.
My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me by Jason B. Rosenthal
This heart-wrenching memoir is centered on an op-ed titled “Modern Love” by the author’s wife who died ten days after its publication. This book is a clear example of how social networks amplify any book but more importantly, how virality makes death all the more approachable, all the more universal despite the barriers that separate us globally. This memoir presents the reader with hope in the woe and utter despondence of grief and its mundanity.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
This novel tells the story of a girl who sues her parents for the rights to her own body. Now adapted into a movie (2009), this novel highlights the battle for life that can overtake not only individuals, but entire families. In turn, this creates a plethora of ethical and moral dilemmas centered on medical rights and what it means to be “good”. Death is inevitable but the ways we fight to maintain life in this modern world are just as important as the battle against the darkness.
The Lost Art of Dying by L.S. Dugdale
This non-fiction book presents the realities of death in comparison to the past, whereby the process of dying and death has become “institutionalized”. Our heavy reliance on modern medicine and its practices actually may “prolong suffering” and remove any sense of dignity from the final act of one’s life. Dugdale instead presents the reader with the power of the wisdom of the past and how dying today does not have to be so tough and sanitized. By marrying the past and present, we allow for death to have new found meaning alongside challenging our modern perceptions.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
This somewhat wry, and rather bold compelling book presents the taboo lives of our bodies postmortem. Our cadavers, as what remains once we die, are seldom discussed and this book challenges our contemporary ideas on death by presenting what happens to our bodies when we no longer inhabit them. Latterly, the exploration of scientific discovery is also of immense importance here.
This novel is set-in modern-day Bombay (Mumbai) and takes the reader through a journey of domestic trials and tribulations that test each and every member of Nariman’s family. While Nariman has broken an ankle and is struggling with Parkinson’s, he is in desperate need of help and the pressures of his care impact his family greatly. This novel challenges the idea that death is instant and highlights the difficulties that emerge long before the soul has departed.
The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford
Although this book is research from the 1960s and updated in the 1990s, it has immense importance today as it unveils the world of the American funeral industry and its not so supportive nature. From the influence of capitalism and industry to the stripping of emotional care and work, Mitford’s words ring true to this very day.
Kalinithi presents a world of questioning where the reader is journeyed through the mind of a dying neurosurgeon. By experiencing both sides of the medical world, Kalinithi asks us to wonder, to ponder and ruminate on what makes this life worth living by coming “face to face with mortality.” This challenges the way we perceive youth and death as many assume death is for the elderly, yet sadly, many never reach this idealized form of ending.
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
This is a posthumous memoir of sorts that deigns to explicate battling impending death with “open eyes” and a keen focus to continue through the process. While coping with the pains and worsening ramifications of esophageal cancer, Hitchens presents a striking account of his ordeal. This is elevated by an exploration of how illness, and latterly, death, impact our perception, our world view and our ability to consider the great unknown.
A memoir on mortality that challenges what it means to find new truths and newfound belief as life progresses. This memoir grapples with the most humanly innate fear: the process and act of dying and death. This balanced memoir centers itself on seeking answers without allowing them to consume and stop daily life.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
This powerfully emotive book emphasizes that by focusing on death, one forgets to live. But by focusing on enabling the joy of others, working for your own goals and finding beauty in the everyday, the fear of death begins to melt away. Instead, life becomes worth living and overcoming the seemingly insurmountable, or so Pausch came to believe.
This memoir ruminates on what makes living one’s final days meaningful. Impactful, bold and brimming with a delicate comfort that perhaps can only truly be found in the mind of the dying. This memoir is a lesson to us all in finding peace in finality and living our own truths despite assured ending.
Sign-up for Letters From The Psychopomp
a weekly letter from The Psychopomp about Death, and the latest from Psychopomp.com:
The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski
This book is a reworking of core Buddhist teachings that allow the reader to find simplicity and openness in the blur of the fear and anger surrounding death and mortality. One key area that will impact the reader is the utter impermanence of this transient life. This allows the reader to question their openness to death and the ways in which they perceive this universal undertaking.
The Needs of the Dying David Kessler
This list would be remiss without this title, with its compassionate language and stories that transform our perception of the dying and the role of the sick and dying in their own ecosystems. Through compelling stories and delicate honesty, Kessler’s words serve both the dying and those holding their hand as they approach the veil.
While this book was grown out of Yip-Williams blog, this book goes beyond and details the discovery necessary to accept mortality. While overcoming adversity, Yip-Williams did not surrender and fought against all-odds to keep living despite the imminence of death from cancer. This is a poignant read that will challenge the idea that death comes suddenly, when in reality, it is ever present.
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God by Greta Christina
This collection of short stories is succinct, but takes a rather less common approach to death and its understanding. Centered on a purely atheist perspective, Christina offers a secular approach to understanding and accepting death while still finding a sense of serenity and peace often presented through religious contexts.
This novel presents the reader with a sense of finding community in living and in death. Mark knows he’s dying and decides to go on one final journey across the country. Along the way he’s joined by companions all experiencing their own, personal suffering. They decide to drive off a cliff together but their journey to their final destination proves to be more than anyone could hope.
This novel is the story of worlds colliding between vastly different individuals. As they grapple to come to terms with the difficulties of what they’ve experienced, they find community in their shared trauma. Finding new ways to cope and discovering a sense of past influence on the present, Schwarz words affirm the importance of life and living beyond fear of the unknown.
Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
This quirky novel chronicles a 20-something-year-old atheist who can’t stop thinking about death and what comes after. Gilda seeks out free therapy from the local Catholic church, but when she arrives, she is mistaken for a job applicant. She goes along with the lie until mysterious circumstances come to the fore. This novel is an important reminder that one day we will all die, but that doesn’t mean we can’t live and find joy in life for the moment.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Despite being over 60 years old, Plath’s The Bell Jar, is an extremely poignant and emotive exploration of societal pressures and battling mental illness. Centering the young, vivacious, yet slowly cracking Esther, Plath expertly investigates the complex darknesses of the mind. Through bold diction and excruciatingly painful imagery, this novel challenges us today as women’s mental health is still overtly, and continuously impacted by timeless societal pressures.