12 Nonfiction Books On Death, Dying, And The Afterlife To Answer All Of Your Morbid Questions
You’ve heard it many times before: Nothing is certain but death and taxes. Various versions of the quote have popped up over the centuries, dating back to at least the 1700s. (Fun fact: Benjamin Franklin was not the originator.) The truth of it seems to have stood the test of time, particularly as it pertains to death. Even though the end of life eventually comes for us all, that doesn’t mean death is a topic everyone is eager to discuss or ponder. For many, there are few more uncomfortable ideas than leaving this life behind. You might want to exercise caution when bringing it up on, say, a first date, for instance.
Of course, not everyone is so eager to avoid the subject. Numerous nonfiction writers have been brave enough to tackle death, including how we view it, how it happens, and what becomes of our bodies and souls afterward. As much as death might not be the most pleasant issue to consider, it can be surprisingly intriguing. Books on the subject prove just that, if you give them a chance. They’re not all grim and morbid; they’re also humorous, insightful, candid, moving, and entertaining.
Below are 12 nonfiction books about death, dying, and beyond.
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'Stiff' by Mary Roach
Science and humor writer Mary Roach looks at what happens to our bodies after we die in Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. If you’re squeamish, this may not be the book for you, but if you can handle it, you’ll get to explore different paths bodies can take after death. It might even inspire you to donate your body to science once you die… or completely deter you.
'Spook' by Mary Roach
As with Stiff, Mary Roach explores death in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. This time, she focuses on the human soul and where it goes when we leave our bodies behind. She turns to numerous sources, from the scientific to the mystical, bringing her on a fascinating journey through different countries, operating rooms, a haunted university, and more.
'When Breath Becomes Air' by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi shares the experience of confronting his own impending death in his poignant memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. The late neurosurgeon began writing after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and his story recounts his transition from doctor to patient, and from living to dying. His work is a beautiful reflection on achieving a meaningful life as death looms.
‘How We Die’ by Sherwin B. Nuland
A winner of the National Book Award, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter details the reality of death. As a doctor, late author Sherwin B. Nuland incorporates firsthand experience on the subject to give candid and useful — if sometimes unpleasant — information. Although the book was first published in 1993, it remains relevant, especially after having been updated in subsequent years.
'The Good Death' by Ann Neumann
After losing her father, journalist Ann Neumann was inspired to explore the concept of a “good death.” Her book on the subject, fittingly called The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, delves into how people die in the United States and how we view the end of life. She examines the issue through multiple lenses, from the religious to the scientific.
'Spoiler Alert: You're Gonna Die' by Korttany Finn, Jacquie Purcell
Korttany Finn and Jacquie Purcell inject some humor into an often dismal subject in Spoiler Alert: You’re Gonna Die: Unveiling Death One Question at a Time. Through the book, Purcell, a coroner, answers a host of death-related questions from people across the internet. You’ll learn things you probably never even knew you wanted to know.
'Final Exits' by Michael Largo
Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die by Michael Largo lays out the many — and sometimes extremely strange — ways that people today die. He takes it even further, giving real-life examples of such deaths. You’ll be surprised to see how many seemingly harmless objects can prove deadly, from toilets to toupees.
'From Here to Eternity' by Caitlin Doughty
Different cultures have different death rituals, and we get to learn about a variety of them in From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. The book shares undertaker Caitlin Doughty’s journey around the globe to learn more about such practices. Her stories will help you view death in entirely new ways.
'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' by Caitlin Doughty
Another by Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory gives us a window into what it is like to care for dead bodies. The memoir brings us along with Doughty as she begins working in a crematory, and as you can imagine, the job has its surprises. Additionally, the author-slash-mortician gains a lot of wisdom, and she uses it to make a case for changing our society’s approach to death and the dead.
'The Chick and the Dead' by Carla Valentine
Pathology expert and former mortuary technician Carla Valentine gives us another book the squeamish among us will want to avoid. In The Chick and the Dead: Life and Death Behind Mortuary Doors, she brings us through the process of an autopsy. In doing so, she also shares interesting reflections and lessons related to death.
'The American Way of Death Revisited' by Jessica Mitford
You probably never expected to hear a book described as an “enthralling look at the funeral industry,” but that’s what late journalist Jessica Mitford achieved with The American Way of Death Revisited. Updated in 1996 prior to her death, the work is a surprisingly funny exposé. Mitford shines a light on problems in the death care industry, including unfair pricing, telemarketing schemes, and more.