Life’s single guarantee—death—unifies this nonfiction list of great reads. Death touches all of us and eventually happens to all of us. But these nine books, most of them published in the last five years, demonstrate that death also humbles us, teaches us, intrigues us, evades us, inspires us, grosses us out, and makes us laugh. As with many fraught and difficult topics, books about death in all its terrifying glory provide a safe place from which to peer inside and marvel. Whether readers are dealing with a loss, struggling with a diagnosis, or just plain interested, they can keep death at an intimate arm’s length with these titles.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
Distressed by end-of-life practices and treatments that “addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit,” surgeon Gawande confronts the contemporary experience of aging and dying. He suggests that what most of us want when we’re incapable of taking care of ourselves is autonomy and life’s simple pleasures. Gawande makes his case with stories about real people, and, as a writer and a doctor, he appreciates the value of a good ending.
Down among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician, by Michelle Williams
Williams, 30 years old and bored with her job in the British National Health Service, applies on a whim for a position at a hospital mortuary. In this unique and entertaining occupational memoir, she chronicles the first year on the job, sharing her day-to-day duties without pulling any punches or sparing the occasional shivery detail. One of the book’s key themes is that while mortuaries are unusual places, the people who work in them are just regular folk.
The Death Class: A True Story about Life, by Erika Hayasaki
Year after year, Norma Bowe faces a waiting list of students wanting to get into her death class at a college in New Jersey. Journalist Hayasaki spent four years following Bowe and her class, and details the professor’s own story, rife with childhood trauma, and those of several of her students, who are struggling with difficulties of their own. Beyond what Bowe requires of students—written assignments such as eulogies for themselves, and letters to lost loved ones—and her class trips to mortuaries and cemeteries, is the underlying truth that a good, long stare at death can trigger a deeper appreciation of life.
The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe
Schwalbe and his mother accidentally formed a book club in a cancer-treatment waiting room, and deepened their relationship in the process. Together deciding what books to read while Mary Anne gets treatment for pancreatic cancer, the author and his mother are able to approach topics they otherwise wouldn’t discuss, focusing more on what the books reveal than what happens in them. Like Mary Anne, who reads books’ endings first, we know how this one is going to end—but Schwalbe’s memoir is foremost a celebration of life and of the way books can enrich it.
Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home, by Sheri Booker
At the tender age of 15, Sheri Booker began a nine-year career at a funeral home in West Baltimore. In this darkly comic memoir, Booker recounts dealing with loss in her own family and witnessing a growth in business due to drug dealing and violence in the neighborhood made famous by the HBO series The Wire. She also chronicles a changing urban culture as funeral garb morphs from somber black to photo-screened memorial T-shirts, with young black men making up a growing proportion of the customers.
The Removers, by Andrew Meredith
Meredith’s memoir starts with his nearly accidental career as a remover, shuffling the bodies of the newly dead from houses and hospitals to funeral homes and crematories. But this antidote to being broke becomes a decade-long meander when Meredith is hired full-time at a crematory. In his twenties and surrounded by the baffling, gross sadness of death—his age an irony not lost on him—Meredith learns a lot about life.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty
Our death-denial culture doesn’t often pause to ponder the inevitable certainty of life’s end, but Doughty, a licensed L.A. mortician, gently pushes readers into facing many of the realities about death, dying, and the funerary process in her memoir. Sympathetic to those who are afraid of the morbid and morose, Doughty intersperses the grim realities of decay and decomposition with humor and sincerity. Potentially life-altering and a must-read for anyone who plans on dying.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
Roach’s accessible book, part medical history and part social science, could very well be many readers’ gateway to “death lit.” In her trademark plucky prose and displaying her métier in fascinating tangents, Roach visits med-school cadaver labs and mortuary schools so we don’t have to. Death may have the last laugh, but, in the meantime, Roach finds merriment in the macabre.
Undertaker’s Daughter, by Kate Mayfield
Mayfield, the daughter of an undertaker, grew up in a funeral home in 1960s small-town Kentucky. Once she became a teenager, her father did everything he could to make sure she’d escape their small-town, death-centered life. Comparisons can be drawn between this memoir and the TV show Six Feet Under for the bizarre mixture of drama and comedy; however, Mayfield’s real-life story is compelling in its own very strange way.