American culture, as a whole, has a lot of Puritanical holdovers, especially around death. We just don’t like to talk about it, or when we do, it gets classified as morbid — an unhealthy interest. Despite death being a natural part of life, we keep it separate from everything else and fear it. We don’t talk about what we want to happen after we shuffle off this mortal coil until the curtain is just about to close on our final act of life, to the point where if someone dies unexpectedly, it’s up to their family to guess what they want done, and try not to get sucked into the whims of the funerary business. There’s a lot of options out there beyond just cremation or casket burial, not that there’s anything wrong with them if that is your choice (beyond the ecological ramifications). But that’s where the death positive movement and death positive books come in.
So what is the death positive movement? Built upon death centered movements reaching back as far as the 1970s, this modern iteration is focused on removing the fear around death. It aims to show that it’s not morbid to talk about death in “polite society,” but in fact is part of living in a healthy society. The movement works to educate others on their options around death, fights to ensure that people have a right to choose how they die, and that they have access to those choices. Being death positive doesn’t mean that you are happy when someone dies, it just means you’re more willing to discuss your grief and experiences around death. Death isn’t something to be sequestered away in some basement mortuary or behind closed doors at a funeral home. To help guide you into that frame of mind, I (a thanatologist) have some recommendations to welcome you into the death positive movement.
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
It couldn’t be a list of death positive books if I didn’t include at least one book by Caitlin Doughty. She could make up most of a list by herself, honestly. She’s one of the founding members of The Order of the Good Death, one of the current driving forces in the death positive movement. She’s also the individual behind the Ask a Mortician videos. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty travels the globe, researching different death traditions from Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos to the Tana Torajas’s death involved lives. She poses the question of just what is a good death, and is the way Americans approach death really the best? Can’t we do better? If you’re brand new to the movement, this is the book you want to start your journey.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Did you know that we are currently outliving our bodies and are butting up against the natural lifespan of humans? We have made so many advances in medicine that our bodies cannot keep up and we are medically prolonging our lives. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in some cases, this does mean that suffering may be prolonged as well, and that is exactly what Atul Gawande discusses here. He argues that we should be able to choose how we die, and be able to die on our own terms. He also holds nothing back, letting you know exactly what will happen to your body as you age and after you die. It can be kinda gross. You’ll learn what hospice and assisted living is like too, with first hand accounts from both the elderly and the staff. This is a must read for everyone.
Stiff by Mary Roach
So you’ve died, got through this thing called life, and had your affairs in order so your family knew what you wanted in death and got the ball rolling, so to speak. You’re officially a cadaver. What’s next? Mary Roach has the answer for you. And not just answers from modern day autopsies and medical discussions: you’ll learn about cadavers that have changed the course of history, different death rituals across time and cultures, what donating your body to science really means, and other various stories about humans after death. It can get a little gross, but there are too many jokes to laugh at to get too skeeved out.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi, Translated by Robert Moulthrop
Death is a difficult topic to broach with children, whether it’s in preparation for a funeral of a loved one, or explaining why their beloved fish is swimming upside down. This book is a good place to start. It focuses on four siblings who live with their grandmother, who is slowly declining. The four of them come up with a plan to stall Death when he comes for her, and he does, inevitably, as he does for us all. But he takes the time to tell a story, a story that helps them understand the connection between life and death, joy and grief. Death is a complicated subject to teach, but this picture book handles it magnificently, teaching how to say goodbye in a way that is heartfelt and only a little bit tear-jerking.
Death and the Idea of Mexico by Claudio Lomnitz
While this, admittedly, leans more towards a more academic-type of text, it’s still deeply important to read, especially with a conversation centered on death. This book is the first look into the social, cultural, and political history of death within a country, extending all the way back to the sixteenth century. Death is an important part of Mexican identity, and Lomnitz demonstrates that expertly, laying out clearly the death practices of the pre-Columbian age, how colonization and imperialism affected the culture (especially in regards to Catholic diaspora) and even touches upon the new religious movement around Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, more colloquially known as Santa Muerte.
Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends by Michko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken
Learning about how a culture thinks often requires looking at the stories it tells itself. Seeing how a culture views death is no different, nor is reading cultural ghost stories. This book catalogs some of the more recognizable ghost legends from Japan. It also looks at their place within Japanese culture as a whole, and the varied views of death within the country, especially those rooted in pre-Buddhist beliefs. This is another scholarly level of work, but is still accessible to those willing to pick it up, and it’s a short book as well, only about 162 pages.
Grave Injustice by Kathleen S. Fine-Dare
One cannot talk about death, both the study of and the laws that essentially regulate the management of it, without acknowledging the repatriation efforts focused on Indigenous remains. This book lays out the constant struggle of Native Americans to reclaim remains of family members that were appropriated and sold to collectors or museums by colonists. It traces the histories of laws surrounding the subject, as well as the cultural reasons for both sides of the fight, before finally culminating in the fight that brought about NAGPRA: the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix
Written by a doctor who practiced palliative care for 30 years, this book is a meditation on how to greet death gently, with eyes wide open, rather than ignoring what is coming. Told through case studies of patients, Dr. Mannix argues that having clarity around what will happen before, during, and after death is therapeutic, and we shouldn’t forestall death simply due to the terror of it. We must find the line between what is enhancing life versus extending suffering out of fear.
Passed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial by Karla F.C. Holloway
There are few communities in the United States that have as close a relationship with death as the Black community. Not just a close relationship, but a complicated one. From wrongful deaths and executions to malpractice at the hands of those in the death-care industry, death is an important facet of Black identity. Using interviews, archival research, and analyses of literature, film, and music, Karla F.C. Holloway investigates the myths, rituals, politics, and history of Black death practices. It gets heavy at times, even for a book about death, covering lynchings and medical malpractice and neighborhood violence and plots full of unmarked graves, even the story of her son’s death and how it drove her to the subject of death. But nonetheless, it’s an important read, especially considering the bones the United States has been built upon.
Death has been on the forefront of a lot of people’s minds recently, and plenty have had to arrange funerals and wakes they hadn’t considered having to plan that soon. Hopefully this list brought some comfort, or perhaps just some new ideas around death as a whole.
If you’re interested in thanatology and would like to contribute to death research, you can answer the questions in this survey, connected to my thesis over COVID-19 and your experience with death. It is entirely anonymous and IRB approved, and you would be contributing to important research into our culture. If you would like to hear me talk about said research, you can listen to this podcast episode, or read the transcript.
And if you need some books to help you through grief, you can check out this list with comforting books about death and dying.