It’s a subject we tend not to think about yet is bound to come up in our lifetimes. Some day, we will all die. It’s not exactly a pleasant notion and it’s a truth that we often tend to distract ourselves away from, cherishing the time we have. And while such questioning can often fill one with existential dread, there’s a certain comfort that comes with confronting the unknown. There’s no shortage of books out there on the subject of covering the controversial and sometimes taboo subject matter of when our mortal coil is shed. Here are some books worth reading on the subject that may not make us so nervous when the 12th hour comes, gaining great insight into the big sleep.
How We Die
written by Sherwin B. Nuland
Published in 1994
As an award-winning and best-selling novel on the topic, How We Die is a pretty self-explanatory book. Sherwin B. Nuland goes into exceptional detail on the nature of what happens when the human body is declared deceased. The topics of this book range from the business side of how healthcare handles this difficult process to the more personal connections we hold with life in our complacency to not let go when the end is near. Winner of the National Book Award, How We Die has been updated over the years to be one of the most comprehensive books on the subject of human death.
written by Christopher Hitchens
Published in 2012
Controversial public figure Christopher Hitchen had his novel on mortality published a few months after his unfortunate death when he succumbed to esophageal cancer. The book contains seven of his essays he wrote for Vanity Fair on coming to terms with his condition. It’s an exceptional read for hearing about theories on death from someone who was approaching his final days. There’s even an eighth essay included that was sadly unfinished before Hitchens’ passing. Though a noted atheist of stern vigor, Hitchens notes in these essays how he fears losing his ability to write and the pains of chemotherapy, while also trying to find a meaning of life.
On Death & Dying
written by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D.
Published in 1969
Regarded as one of the must-read books on death in the 20th century, On Death & Dying divulges the many aspects of passing with great insight from Doctor Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her writings include covering the five stages of death that are now well-known by most people, that of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There are also plenty of conversations and interviews that take a deeper psychological look at how death affects us all, from the person dying to healthcare professionals to the family of the deceased. Kübler-Ross’s book, compiled from her many seminars on the subject, has become such an enlightening read that it has been a staple textbook on the topic.
The Denial of Death
written by Ernest Becker
Published in 1973
Tapping into the aspects of psychology and philosophy, Ernest Becker’s award-winning book on denying death is the towering achievement of Becker’s contemplation on mortality. His book takes a deep dive into just why we don’t like talking about such a subject for more than just the grim nature. But this isn’t as much of a downer book as it may sound as Becker’s writings not only strive to acknowledge death but also embrace the joys of life itself. His remarkable writing on the subject earned him a Pulitzer prize in 1974 and the book is still regarded highly today for its thoughtful and optimistic approach to how we handle such an uncomfortable aspect of human life.
When Breath Becomes Air
written by Paul Kalanithi
Published in 2016
American Neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Kalanithi is very open in this posthumous memoir about his struggles in combatting metastatic lung cancer. Despite passing so young at the age of 36, Paul’s writings are deeply moving on questioning just what makes life worth living for. While such notions seem to come easier for someone approaching the end of their mortal life, it’s a bittersweet read for someone who had put in a decade’s worth of work in the field only to find his career cut short by such a devastating discovery. This book details his evolution from being unquestioning of the world to accepting of his inevitable death which came about in 2015.
The Violet Hour
written by Katie Roiphe
Published in 2016
It can be a sobering thought to know that there was a time when all great thinkers, writers, and philosophers had to accept their own death. Katie Roiphe places a microscope over five prolific figures (Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak) and finds out just what was going through their minds amid their final days on Earth. She conducts a wealth of interviews of those who knew such profound figures best and recreates the revealing final moments with stunning detail. Such inspiring tales include Updike writing a poem while in the hospital and Freud’s smoking while in exile that led to his own death. It’s a sobering read for humanizing such notable names.
From Here To Eternity
written by Caitlin Doughty
Published in 2017
Noted mortician Caitlin Doughty has such an infatuation with the subject of deceased bodies that she spans the world to learn of how other cultures handle their dead. Not only does she discover such wild rituals of sky burials and skull worship but she also relates how these approaches to death compare with the American funeral system. It’s a weirdly morbid take on the topic but Caitlin takes care to make sure there’s a certain comfort with this subject matter so that death doesn’t seem as taboo a subject when there’s so much to learn in the handling of dead bodies, no matter which country you reside.
Dying: A Memoir
written by Cory Taylor
Published in 2016
The award-winning Australian novelist Cory Taylor writes on a more personal matter in her memoirs about coming to terms with her illness. With brain cancer at the age of 60, she pens a beautifully powerful tome of recognizing the values of life when discovering that her cancer is no longer treatable. With deep meditation on the fluctuating emotions of coming to terms with mortality, Taylor’s thoughts on the page are rather inspiring considering she wrote this book within just a few weeks. It’s as touching as it is funny in how Taylor approaches this topic with bravery, humor, and an awe-inspiring sense of embracing all that life has to offer as the clock nears 12.
With the End in Mind
written by Kathryn Mannix
Published in 2017
Doctor Kathryn Mannix draws upon 30 years of experience in the area of dealing with and treating pain. Many stories are relayed of her time in dealing with patients that are due to expire and how therapeutic techniques can help ease the journey into shedding the mortal coil. She notes plenty of specific details in how to handle that tough ordeal of easing the pain for those soon to pass, including how it affects the family. Deeply personal and thoughtfully gentle, this book aims to be open and profound in how it addresses the final steps to making sure our departure from this world is as pleasant as it can possibly be.
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying
written by Nina Riggs
Published in 2017
Poet Nina Riggs reflects on life and love when death is near in this best-selling memoir. Nina was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37 and learned that it was indeed terminal. Having live a life of being married and mothering two sons, she draws upon her life experiences as a summation of her lessons in motherhood, marriage, and memory. Family is also greatly in focus as she takes note of her family legacy that has come before her. Both humorous and poignant, Riggs writes her final book with a great deal of meditative acceptance which will hopefully soothe any who find themselves in a similar scenario.
written by Atul Gawande
Published in 2014
Practicing surgeon Atul Gawande tackles the shifting priorities in medicine when it comes to handling those who are not long for this world. For being more grounded in the subject, Gawande takes a tough approach to the limitations of the field how crucial it is to alleviate as much pain as possible. While divulging the more cruel aspects of how death is handled medically, Atul also offers viable solutions to ensuring that passing on need not be an undignified experience, where even care in a hospice can be treated with more of an easement than a grim experience for all involved.
In the Slender Margin
written by Eve Joseph
Published in 2014
Eve Joseph weaves this memoir on death with insightful knowledge and contemplative meditation. This topic is approached from numerous angles that include aspects of history, religion, philosophy, literature, personal anecdote, mythology, poetry, and pop culture. The book is based on both her many years of experience within a hospice and dealing with the death of her own brother who passed away at an early age. Jospeh’s intriguing writing is very open and personal to be far more than just a textbook or a self-help book on the topic of death, making the subject far more relatable and insightful to stand out from the slew of other death books.
All That Remains: A Life in Death
written by Sue Black
Published in 2018
Sue Black is a Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology that thinks about death on a daily basis. Whether it’s the observations of a murder scene or the knowledge of burial sites, her encyclopedic knowledge spans quite far with most of it contained within her book, All That Remains. As with many books from experts on this topic, Sue approaches this material with much appeal to be more educational and intriguing than merely tragically somber or gleefully macabre. It’s an astonishing guide to the many aspects of dead bodies that Sue has become acquainted with over the years, allowing the reader to share in her unorthodox view of what happens when our bodies die.
The Last Lecture
written by Randy Rausch
Published in 2008
Though a fairly common phrase among professors, computer science professor Randy Rausch’s The Last Lecture is anything but an orthodox essay. Drawing on his many decades of experience, Rausch discusses the many angles of life best lived before we depart. Writing with great intelligence and wit, he touches on topics of legacy and childhood while he takes note of his own arriving demise when diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s an inspiring book of sorts that approaches this rocky road of mortality with a dignity that’ll inspire just about any generation to take full advantage of life for all its worth, coming from a man with much experience and cherishing as much before the end is near.
written by Mary Roach
Published in 2003
When it comes to handling cadavers, there are over 2,000 years of history present in the realms of both burial and scientific study. Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers digs into the history behind corpses and how far we’ve come in how we handle the dead. So much has been learned as mortal remains of human beings have been used to make groundbreaking developments in how much we know about the body once life ceases. Some of this research is revolutionary, some of it remarkable, and some of it is just downright weird! This is a wonderfully odd book for those were are curious about the history of corpses and are intrigued enough to explore the rather macabre stories behind such developments.
Will my Cat Eat My Eyeballs?
written by Caitlin Doughty
Published in 2019
The notable mortician Caitlin Doughty returns once more with a book on the questions of the dead that one may be afraid to ask. Doughty has no qualms about answering such odd queries in this fearlessly insightful book on the nature of our bodies when we’re no longer inside them. Approached with a candid grace, this book covers a wide range of unique facts, from Egyptian burial rituals to the disgusting knowledge of flesh-eating insects. It’s also quite an informative read if you’re wondering just how deep to bury your cat but don’t really feel comfortable asking anyone in particular about which depth is right.