I’m just gonna go ahead and say it: I’m a sucker for books about death. My goth phase just never quite left my system, and I now like to live out my skeleton dreams by reading about all things morbid.
On a more serious note, books about death explore one of the most common and deepest fears of humanity; death is a topic that has fascinated and repulsed people for centuries. So, for those of you who are a little curious about how funeral homes work, what someone might be thinking when they opt to be euthanised in Switzerland, and what death customs were like in 1950s rural Sardinia, here are 7 books that are sure to satisfy that morbid curiosity.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Set to the backdrop of her father’s funeral home, Bechdel’s graphic memoir explores the author’s childhood and developing queer identity in relation to her strange household. The death of Bechdel’s father triggers many of the central events and realisations of the memoir, and shapes the questions she asks herself throughout. While the functionality of the funeral home is not explored much, death plays an important role in the book. The way it affects the path Bechdel ends up taking, as well as how she revisits her own past, makes for a fascinating and moving exploration of how death and loss play a role in all our lives. It’s beautifully intertextual, something I always appreciate, especially as the author discovers queer classics buried at the back of her university library. It’s also stunningly illustrated, blue tones enhancing the melancholy that runs through the memoir, and Bechdel matching her father’s obsessive decorating of the home in her detailed drawings. I recently also recommended this as part of the best books I read in 2019.
Accabadora by Michela Murgia
Following the families of a small community in rural 1950s Sardinia, Italian author Michela Murgia crafts a mysterious tale of a rustic yet gentle kind of euthanasia, exploring how sometimes we have to make choices that are not clearly right or wrong, but somewhere in between. The young protagonist, a little girl born to a poor family, is taken in by a wealthier woman who lives alone in the village, and grows up to help out in her sewing business. However, she soon discovers that her adoptive mother has a different kind of job at night, one that takes her out of the house and into the homes of the sick and dying, in order to speed up the process and ensure a painless, quick death. This discovery triggers a journey both physical and emotional for the protagonist, never quite recovering from the implications of her guardian leading the people of her community to the grave. It’s not a perfect book, and I found myself wanting to know more about the ‘accabadora’ and less about the protagonist, but it is nonetheless a very unique and fascinating story. Plus, how could I not recommend a book set in my father’s homeland?
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
At ten years old, Alex Woods is struck by a meteorite in his own home, subsequently becoming a fairly awkward teenager who likes books and science. Pretty much friendless, he stumbles (quite literally) into the garden of the elderly Mr. Peterson, fearing an angry old man and instead finding a friend for life. Alex and Mr. Peterson develop the most endearing and honest friendship I have encountered in a novel thus far, sharing book recommendations, life advice, and many a shenanigan. However, the most poignant aspect of this book is its take on euthanasia, ageing, and dignity. The bond Mr. Peterson develops with Alex makes him trust the boy with his final wish: to be taken to Switzerland and allowed a dignified death by choice. While Alex struggles to accept this decision, and to be the one who has to execute the plan, his love for his friend ultimately overshadows any doubts he might have as he crosses into Europe with the dying man. A contemporary YA novel unlike any other, this is a masterpiece that enhances its exploration of age and death by making a young boy such an integral part of the old man’s plan, all awkwardness and polite reservations we maintain towards elders erased in their beautiful friendship. One final note, as a sort of warning: this book made me cry like a bitch.
The New Hunger (Warm Bodies #0.5) by Isaac Marion
Different from the other books on this list in that it’s a dystopian novella about zombies, the prequel to Warm Bodies blew me away with its gentle writing and hard-hitting character building. I loved Warm Bodies, and did not expect much from the prequel as most reviews were not particularly positive, but found myself enjoying it even more than the central narrative. Set before the events of Warm Bodies, we follow some of the well-loved main characters as they cross the United States in search of edible food and a new home, away from the dangers of the newly risen zombies. The novella alternates between a few human points of view and that of R, the main zombie character of the series, when he first wakes up a living corpse. Not just for fans of the novel-turned-movie, The New Hunger offers some insightful commentary on our sociopolitical landscape and climate crisis, painting the Earth’s future as bleak and quite literally rotten. While Warm Bodies is entertaining and fast-paced, its prequel takes its time to contemplate what has happened to our world, and how humanity has really messed up this time. If you like dystopian fiction and want something a little deeper, I would wholeheartedly recommend this.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (and other books) by Caitlin Doughty
I admit that I’m cheating a bit here, as I’ll be talking about three books in one, but that’s more recs for you, so win-win, right? First and foremost, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is Doughty’s memoir about her work as a mortician. She recounts her experience getting into the industry, overcoming her fear of death, and meeting a variety of interesting corpses and grieving families. This book is not just a memoir, but a manifesto, Doughty weaving her ideas for a better death industry into each chapter. She fights for cheaper and more transparent practices, for fairer policies, and for a more natural and sustainable burial standard. This is an incredibly fascinating memoir, with lots of detail about her day-to-day work life and the realities of the job. Her follow-up publication, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, chronicles her travels across the globe to learn about a variety of burial and funerary practices. Fascinating and written with respect and cultural sensitivity, it covers things such as burial towers and communities who keep their corpses around the house for years, dressing them and seating them at the dinner table. It didn’t change my view of death as drastically as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, but it’s nonetheless a worthy and interesting read. Finally, her most recent release, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, answers funny and poignant questions about death asked by children. It’s addressed to a young audience, which I wasn’t aware of going into the book but found fairly amusing. The questions range from the title of the book to more serious matters of grandparents passing away and how soldiers’ bodies are transported back to their homeland. It’s an endearing and interesting book, and surprised me with how much of a page-turner it was. Caitlin Doughty is hilarious and a go-to author for anyone interested in death – her YouTube channel, where she talks about famous corpses and answers questions from subscribers, is also a must-watch.