Books, Pop Culture

Why I read books about death and you should too

We’re all going to die, right?

It’s a familiar moment: I’m browsing my favorite online bookstore, armed with a substantial discount code, and I keep second-guessing my decision to buy Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. It’s not Caitlin, it’s me. Do I really need another book about death?

Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife stand less than arm’s length from me, propped up by the apotheticary jar where I keep my washi tape and 8GB of forensic textbooks in a flash drive. Kate Mayfield’s  The Undertaker’s Daughter follows, then Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson’s Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary ‘Body Farm’. In a different corner of the room, I keep my Paul Koudounaris collection in a display case, his photos of ossuaries and catacomb saints safe from prying hands.

This is how I avoid another type of familiar moment: a well-meaning friend will flip through those books, find the glossy double-page photos of Capuchin mummies within, and their face will morph into that universally recognized snarl of confusion. They’ll look at me, the book, me again, and mutter something like “okay… but why”. I’ll stand aside, wondering if I’m supposed to explain the mummies or myself or just ask them how they feel about death positivity.

We’re all going to die, right? I don’t think this comes as a shock to anyone, yet we never include death in our repertoire of conversation starters. Sure, we’ll speak of it when it’s disruptive and overwhelming (say, a mass shooting, or a distant war), but there’s no mentioning that quiet, creeping reality that is our collective mortality. Maybe it’s too painful a thought, maybe we’re deliberately procrastinating. Death will come when it comes, my well-meaning friends argue, so why rush? Why deal with it now if we can do it later?

Well… hear me out. There may not be a “later”. You may not be granted long enough notice to get your affairs in order. Do you have a will? Are you going to be an organ donor? Burial or cremation? Should you let your family choose? Should you spare them and just write it all down now?

Death is a many-fanged beast, strong with emotional implications, financial consequences, and legal hurdles many of us have never considered—for example, the privilege of being buried under one’s own name, so often denied to trans people.

Books about death can help us prepare for what’s to come.

Say your concerns lie with corruption and abuse in the funeral business, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited is a perennial read. The subject is re-revisited in Joshua Slocum’s and Lisa Carlson’s Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, and I’d recommend both even if you don’t live in America, as shady business practices are coming for all of us, sooner or later.

If you’re mostly curious about the changes death will bring about for your great face, Jarvis Hayman and Marc Oxenham have written Human Body Decomposition just for you. Worried someone might steal your skull in the name of science? There’s Colin Dickey’s Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.

If, in the end, you’re just  interested in some of the ways people all over the world have found beauty in death, look no further than Leo Touchet’s Rejoice When You Die: The New Orleans Jazz Funerals, Loren Rhoads’s 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, or Jack Mord’s Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive.

Collect enough of these, and you too will be in possession of a lovingly curated #DeathShelfie—and, most importantly, a new-found sense of death positivity.

As for me, I really do think I need another book about death. Let’s buy one.