Good books about death

There you have it, morbid though it may be, I’m looking for some good books about death and dying, particularly as viewed by Western cultures. I’ve got “Stiff” (by Mary Roach) and “The American Way of Death Revisited” (Jessica Mitford) - the latter of which I haven’t read yet. Just curious if anyone else has any suggestions. Just looking for some insightful observations on why we “westerners” view death the way we do, how it kinda freaks everyone out, etc…


The ground-breaking book in the field was ‘On Death and Dying’ by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and that site has links to many other interesting books on the subject of Thanatology.

A fantastic book on the physiological processes of death is ‘How we Die’ by Sherwin Newland. Thorough, informative and not for hypochondriacs under any circumstances. Seriously, worse than the time I tried to read ‘The Shining’ while I was alone for a week in an isolated ranch house in a snowstorm.

I think you’d like How We Die by Sherwin Nuland, a Yale physician IIRC. It’s a frank discussion of what happens to a person physically as they die. It’s well-written and Dr. Nuland offers a lot of personal interpretation throughout, again IIRC it’s been quite a while since I’ve read it.

I read Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying a few years back because it happened to be on the shelf and I was in desperate need of reading material. (Yeah okay, I was in rehab at the time.) It turned out to be very engrossing and became quite relevant to me a few months later when my mother died.

I’ve sorta liked the odd books on it: you might wanna check out:
The Big Book of Death (it’s a comic book, with each story/superstition/etc done by various artists but its highly entertaining).

Not quite what you’re looking for but I found *A Lesson Before Dying * to be quite a good read.

May not be what you’re looking for exactly, but Dead Men Do Tell Tales, a book by a forensic anthropologist, is one I remember being glued to when I read it about 10 years ago.

Several of Michael Shermer’s books (Why People Believe Weird Things being his bestseller) address the role of the fear of death in belief systems.

While the entire book is not about death, Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life & Death in a New Millennium, was an assemblage of his essays for Parade and other magazines over a period of years but included a preface and a final essay written while he knew he was dying of myelodysplasia (a blood marrow disease). In it he (and in a posthumous conclusion his widow Ann Druyan) discusses accepting his own mortality, and how it does not affect his religious views (or lack of).

Sort of on the topic, Final Exits a cataloging of all the different ways to die.

Great bathroom read.

Robert Fulghum’s From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives has a section on death that is excellent.

Being Dead is supposed to be very good - I haven’t yet got around to reading it.

Buried Alive by Jan Bondeson might be an interesting read for you, coming at the basic subject from a left-field angle. It’s a historical survey of the fear of being thought dead when not yet fully expired, and all of the various social and physical systems put in place to prevent being buried before one’s time (or to be rescued from a premature burial). We learn about waiting houses in which corpses are temporarily stored and monitored to ensure the dead really are dead before they’re planted, there’s a number of alarm systems installed in coffins, the medical authorities of the times compete to create the most reliable confirmation methods, and so on. Interesting (morbid) stuff.

Perhaps not what the OP is asking for, but all Discworld novels where Death figures as a central (and sometimes a soul-searching) character, including Mort and Reaper Man.

The Fireside Book of Death by Robert Wilkins has always been one of my favourites. From what I recall (neither of my copies are handy) it’s UK-centric which may not be what you are looking for. It covers the change of attitudes towards death over the years though and is very interesting. Lots of illustrations too.

It’s not limited to Western cultures, but Death: The Trip of a Lifetime by Greg Palmer — former local playwright and television film critic — is a wonderful exploration of how individuals and cultures approach the subject. My favorite segments involve a Ghanaian fetish priest (“witch doctor” to the ill-informed) and a mortuary in Australia run entirely by women (“women bring us into the world, women take us out”).

For reasons I’ll never understand the last half of my 9th grade English class we read two books on death. The aforementioned On Death and Dying and Death be Not Proud. Certainly not a cultural study but a detailed narration that provides anecdotal reports of how people react to death in our society.

Why on earth an English teacher would have a group of 14-15 year old read two books, one after the other on death and hold detailed discussions of death, dying and it’s role in literature, is beyond me. As I think about it we capped it all off with Hamlet.

Ah yes, On Death and Dying, I don’t know how I forgot about that one. I always meant to read it, and I think now is a good time.

There are some really great suggestions here. I’ve got “How We Die” on its way to my mailbox right now - hopefully. I will also check out “The Fireside Book of Death” (I like UK-centric) and “Buried Alive” and maybe a few of your other recommendations.

Thanks TM!


In addition to Stiff, Mary Roach produced Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, another good read. I bought and read them sequentially. :slight_smile:

Good novel with an interesting take on dying and the afterlife, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.

(Interestingly, I bought all three of those books, along with World War Z by Max Brooks, and also reread The Stand by Stephen King right around the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but yet thought I was “recovering just fine” and “nothing was bothering me.” Ha!)

Try “This Thing Called Death.” Ask me for an electronic copy.

Not just you but anyone wishing to have me send a copy of “This Thing Called Death,” le me know.

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