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Books about the Inevitable Death

View all Recommendations by Subjects > Inspirational book lists; This list was last updated on 6/25/2015
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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 books demonstrate that death also humbles us, teaches us, intrigues us, evades us, inspires us, grosses us out, and makes us laugh. 

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The Undertaker's Daughter
What if the place you called “home” happened to be a funeral home? Kate Mayfield explores what it meant to be the daughter of a small-town undertaker in this fascinating memoir evocative of Six Feet Under and The Help, with a hint of Mary Roach's Stiff.

The first time I touched a dead person, I was too short to reach into the casket, so my father picked me up and I leaned in for that first, empty, cold touch. It was thrilling, because it was an unthinkable act.

After Kate Mayfield was born, she was taken directly to a funeral home. Her father was an undertaker, and for thirteen years the family resided in a place nearly synonymous with death. A place where the living and the dead entered their house like a vapor. The place where Kate would spend the entirety of her childhood. In a memoir that reads like a Harper Lee novel, Mayfield draws the reader into a world of Southern mystique and ghosts.

Kate's father set up shop in a small town where he was one of two white morticians during the turbulent 1960s. Jubilee, Kentucky, was a segregated, god-fearing community where no one kept secrets—except the ones they were buried with. By opening a funeral home, Kate's father also opened the door to family feuds, fetishes, and victims of accidents, murder, and suicide. The family saw it all. They also saw the quiet ruin of Kate's father, who hid alcoholism and infidelity behind a cool, charismatic exterior. As Mayfield grows from trusting child to rebellious teen, she begins to find the enforced hush of the funeral home oppressive, and longs for the day she can escape the confines of her small town.

In The Undertaker's Daughter, Kate has written a triumph of a memoir. This vivid and stranger-than-fiction true story ultimately teaches us how living in a house of death can prepare one for life.
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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

"One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year....Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting."―Entertainment Weekly

Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers―some willingly, some unwittingly―have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.
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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

A young mortician goes behind the scenes, unafraid of the gruesome (and fascinating) details of her curious profession.

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty―a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre―took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life's work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn't know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

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The Removers
A dark, poignant, and emotionally brave coming-of-age memoir: the story of a young man who, by handling the dead, makes peace with the living.

For almost twenty years I mistook my father's downfall as my own. But it wasn't. It was not my sister's either, nor my mother's.

A literature professor at La Salle University, Andrew Meredith's father was fired after unspecified allegations of sexual misconduct. It's a transgression Andrew cannot forgive, for it brought about long-lasting familial despair. In the wake of the scandal, Andrew's parents limp along, trapped in an unhappy marriage. Meanwhile, Andrew treads water, stuck in a kind of suspended adolescence—falling in and out of school, moving blindly from one half-hearted relationship to the next, slowly killing the nights drinking beer and listening to music with his childhood friends.

Broke, Andrew moves back home to his childhood neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia and takes a job alongside his father as a “remover,” the name for those unseen, unsung workers who take away the bodies of those who die at home. He describes, as only a professional can do, the intimate, horrific, poignant, and occasionally morbidly comedic aspects of handling the dead. Just how do you carry a 500-pound corpse down winding stairs? What actually happens to pacemakers, tooth fillings, surgical screws, artificial hips, and anything else that the deceased has within his or her body? Andrew begins to see his father not through the lens of a wronged and resentful child, but as a sympathetic, imperfect man who loves his family despite his flaws. Eventually the chip on his shoulder starts to lose its weight.

Poetic without being florid, and with the literary ability to transform the naturally grotesque into the exquisite, The Removers is a searing story of a young man who finds in death a redemptive path toward the forgiveness of the living, including himself.
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Nine Years Under
A dazzling and darkly comic memoir about coming of age in a black funeral home in Baltimore 

Sheri Booker was only fifteen when she started working at Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore. She had no idea her summer job would become nine years of immersion into a hidden world. Reeling from the death of her beloved great aunt, Sheri found comfort in the funeral home and soon had the run of the place. With AIDS and gang violence threatening to wipe out a generation of black men, Wylie was never short on business. 
 
As families came together to bury one of their own, Booker was privy to their most intimate moments of grief and despair. But along with the sadness, Booker encountered moments of dark humor: brawls between mistresses and widows, and car crashes at McDonald's with dead bodies in tow. While she never got over her terror of the embalming room, Booker learned to expect the unexpected and to never, ever cry. Nine Years Under offers readers an unbelievable glimpse into an industry in the backdrop of all our lives.
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The End of Your Life Book Club

An Entertainment Weekly and BookPage Best Book of the Year

During her treatment for cancer, Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will spent many hours sitting in waiting rooms together. To pass the time, they would talk about the books they were reading. Once, by chance, they read the same book at the same time—and an informal book club of two was born. Through their wide-ranging reading, Will and Mary Anne—and we, their fellow readers—are reminded how books can be comforting, astonishing, and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us. A profoundly moving memoir of caregiving, mourning, and love—The End of Your Life Book Club is also about the joy of reading, and the ways that joy is multiplied when we share it with others.

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The Death Class
The poignant, “powerful” (The Boston Globe) look at how to appreciate life from an extraordinary professor who teaches about death: “Poetic passages and assorted revelations you'll likely not forget” (Chicago Tribune).

Why does a college course on death have a three-year waiting list? When nurse Norma Bowe decided to teach a course on death at a college in New Jersey, she never expected it to be popular. But year after year students crowd into her classroom, and the reason is clear: Norma's “death class” is really about how to make the most of what poet Mary Oliver famously called our “one wild and precious life.”

Under the guise of discussions about last wills and last breaths and visits to cemeteries and crematoriums, Norma teaches her students to find grace in one another. In The Death Class, award-winning journalist Erika Hayasaki followed Norma for more than four years, showing how she steers four extraordinary students from their tormented families and neighborhoods toward happiness: she rescues one young woman from her suicidal mother, helps a young man manage his schizophrenic brother, and inspires another to leave his gang life behind. Through this unorthodox class on death, Norma helps kids who are barely hanging on to understand not only the value of their own lives, but also the secret of fulfillment: to throw yourself into helping others.

Hayasaki's expert reporting and literary prose bring Norma's wisdom out of the classroom, transforming it into an inspiring lesson for all. In the end, Norma's very own life—and how she lives it—is the lecture that sticks. “Readers will come away struck by Bowe's compassion—and by the unexpectedly life-affirming messages of courage that spring from her students' harrowing experiences” (Entertainment Weekly).
release date: Oct 07, 2014
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Being Mortal


In Being Mortal, bestselling author Atul Gawande tackles the hardest challenge of his profession: how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.

Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession's ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person's last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.

Full of eye-opening research and riveting storytelling, Being Mortal asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience even to the end, providing not only a good life but also a good end.

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release date: Aug 10, 2010
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Down Among the Dead Men
Michelle Williams is young and attractive, with close family ties, a busy social life . . . and an unusual occupation. When she impulsively applies to be a mortuary technician and is offered the position, she has no idea that her decision to accept will be one of the most momentous of her life. “What I didn't realize then,” she writes, “was that I was about to start one of the most amazing jobs you can do.”

To Williams, life in the mortuary is neither grim nor frightening. She introduces readers to a host of unique characters: pathologists (many eccentric, some utterly crazy), undertakers, and the man from the coroner's office who sings to her every morning. No two days are alike, and while Williams's sensitivity to the dead never wavers, her tales from the crypt range from mischievous to downright shocking. Readers won't forget the fitness fanatic run over while doing nighttime push-ups on the road, the man so large he had to be carted in via refrigerated truck, or the guide dog who led his owner onto railway tracks—and left him there. The indomitable Williams never bats an eye, even as she is confronted—daily—with situations that would leave the rest of us speechless.
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