There are a plethora of books, fiction and non-fiction, on dying, death, and transcendence.
In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of texts, essays, and plays from time immemorial fascinated with the subject of mortality. They continue to be written.
The focus here is non-fiction books. Though I would imagine some ancient texts could have been based on fantasy. 😉 How would we know?!
Some of the first tomes written about death in part or whole were – The Egyptian Book of the Dead – funeral text from circa 1550 B.C.; The Bible (Moses’ five books circa 1000 B.C. to the first half of first century A.D. – Revelations, Samuel, Chronicles, Job); and, The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the 8th century.
In the last 60 years, since the advent of modern palliative care and hospice via the founding of St. Christopher’s by Dame Cicely Saunders in London (1958), and the publication of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying (1969), there has been a vast increase in literature on this subject.
Currently, independent-minded, resourceful boomer generation folks (1946-1964) and the younger gen-x generation, are actively writing about death, dying, green burials, and sacred transitions. Hurrah!!
Aside from my beloved book work, the selected list below is also based on my experiences as a palliative care educator, advocate, hospice volunteer, and end-of-life planner.
Some titles are poignant, others poetic, and others practical.
They are mostly experiential in content, from the point of view of physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and lay people of every background and belief system. Each person (or persons) provides a unique perspective with perhaps a concept or idea that may be helpful for your own journey or someone else’s.
Before you search the list below, I wish to recommend The Year of Reading Dangerously Book Club where author guests are interviewed live-online; you the book club member may participate. Most club members work professionally with death and dying; they are located not only in the U.S. but tune in from other countries as well. See my blog with further detail about author, book club founder, and End-of-Life University founder Karen M. Wyatt, MD, hospice physician at https://wellnessshepherd.com/2018/08/05/death-dying-education-a-chat-with-end-of-life-universitys-karen-wyatt-md/
Abbreviated book list by categories:
Connecting with Loved Ones Still Present, and those who have passed
*** Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying by former hospice nurse Sallie Tisdale. I bought this book when it was published (summer 2018) because of its marvelous title, both humorous and practical. I wish I had written it. It represents many of my own takes on life and what I have learned from those who have kindly allowed me to sit with them, attend to them, share with them. Highly recommended. I hope to meet the author one day. She easily admitted in the opening pages something to the effect of how may I be an expert? I haven’t experienced my own death yet!!
Being Mortal by American/East Indian surgeon Atul Gawande is focused on the talk that most of us should have with loved ones – what do you want if you have a life-limiting illness, how do you wish to deal with modern medicine, and what do you wish for at end-of-life. A reminder to plan ahead, when possible, for yourself and for those you love. Well-written.
Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life by Dr. Ira Byock, California-based palliative care physician. He follows in detail how he lost his beloved parents and other relatives. Through such experiences, he shares, there are opportunities for the person dying and for his or her caregivers to connect and spiritually grow.
The Rainbow Comes and Goes American journalist Anderson Cooper and his amazing 94 year old mother Gloria Vanderbilt write about life, love and loss. Anderson’s father and brother both took their lives. I’ve read the book twice because I appreciated the candor, the tender-hearted humor, and the story-telling.
What To Do When I’m Gone – A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman (actual mother/daughter team – mother wrote the copy, daughter created the graphics; Bloomsbury USA, April 2018). This is a book I wish I had written or collaborated on. It is funny, poignant, simple, and wise – sharing what is meaningful in life. It also reminds me of another subject dear to my heart – how I always miss my precious mother even though I’ve found ways to keep her by my side. Here is a link to a longer book review written earlier this year… https://bookambassador.com/2018/06/08/what-to-do-when-im-gone-charming-new-book-about-mortality-and-what-we-can-mindfully-leave-behind/
Life-Limiting Illness and Meeting the Concept of Mortality
***Life After the Diagnosis: Expert Advice on Living Well with Serious Illness for Patients and Caregivers by Steven Z. Pantillat, MD, head of the Palliative Care Unit at UCSF Hospital. I am particularly biased, not only because his book is both a compassionate and practical guide, but because I have had the pleasure of a one-on-one with this sensitive soul who has years of dedicated experience. I pray I am not in need of medical care when it is my time, but he is a doctor I would choose.
***The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully by Zen Hospice founder Frank Ostaseski. I don’t know anyone who has read this book, been in Frank’s company, or watched him on You Tube videos who does not instantly relate to his warm, connecting way. I am sad that Zen Hospice, a model center for compassionate care, has closed. I was fortunate enough to visit twice. I highly recommend Frank O’s wise book. When I am in Mexico, the meditation book club I attended this year chose this as one of their books. The Spanish language version is selling well in Mexico and Spain!
***When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinthi I’ve read this book twice and will eventually read it again. An honest, poignant, poetic, compelling exploration of mortality by a 37 year old neurosurgeon whom I wish I had known. Remarkable. Another plea for choosing to live your life to the fullest your last days.
Desire to Die
Choosing to Die by Phyllis Shacter An intimate, compassionate, first-hand account of how her husband with Alzheimer’s chose VSED (voluntary stop eating and drinking) when he felt he was going to loose his quality of life. He died 9 1/2 days later. She gently shares how this must not be viewed as suicide but rather as elective death. VSED is a concept to reflect upon and pray you might not need. Note: There is a documentary film of the same title from BBC Scotland, but it is not about VSED.
American Way of Death Revisited A brave, scathing, investigative review of the American funeral industry by Jessica Mitford. First published 1963; updated in 1996.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by feisty, funny, super articulate Los Angeles-based mortician Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death. A call to return to the “old ways”, natural ways, with dignified, sacred rituals honoring those who have passed, and more.
Title to be added here when I am introduced to a well-researched book about sacred green funerals and green burials.
During and After Death Rituals
Sacred Dying by theologian and founder of the Sacred Dying Foundation, Megory Anderson A well-conceived book offering many options. Excellent pull quotes in the margins and an appendix with a variety of prayers, poetry, and sacred texts. She is currently working on a second book for 2019 release.
The Craft of Compassion at the Bedside of the Ill aka Conspiracies of Kindness by Michael Ortiz Hill, hospice nurse, rescue worker, Buddhist practitioner, and an initiated medicine man with the tribal people of Zimbabwe. Loving, deep, spiritual. Five stars on Amazon.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying “There is no greater gift of charity you can give than helping a person to die well.” – Sogyal Rinpoche, monk and author of this 1992 modern version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I might phrase it another way… I find the gift comes from patients. In any event, it is a human right to die comfortably, in a dignified way, according to the wishes of the person you are attending. We might be guides or witnesses; the journey belongs exclusively to the dying. Before and after rituals are described in the Tibetan material as well as consciousness after death in the bardo, the interval between death and the next rebirth.
Goodreads.com is an excellent place to search for more books.
If you go to Amazon.com and search books on death and dying, there are over 20 pages of books to choose from. Some are mentioned above, other titles include Dying A Memoir by Australian Cory Taylor (a favorite of a NY Times reviewer – I like the beautiful vintage book cover with sweet birds and the beginning best. She and a group with illness discuss ways to out themselves so they have fall back – none of them end up choosing to die by hemlock or other method); Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, Terri Daniel’s Embracing Death: A New Look at Grief, Gratitude, and God; Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live (a concept I like – living every day of one year as if it were your last), and social worker Henry Fersko-Weiss’ Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death.
My apologies to those of you whose books are not included – so many worthy books to choose from, and many as yet unread.
Note: Because I am a student of mortality, and a book shepherd, please note how I unabashedly admit I would welcome guiding an author, medical professional or not, for publication on any of the subjects above 😉 Thank you!!!
Other books and resources may be found at:
https://www.eoluniversity.com/A%20Year%20of%20Reading%20Dangerously%20Book%20List.pdf Dr. Karen Wyatt’s 2018 Year of Reading Dangerously booklist
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/books/review/the-good-death-when-breath-becomes-air-and-more.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0 Brilliant review by Andrew Solomon of five books on death and dying.
https://whatsyourgrief.com/32-books-about-death-and-grief/ 32 books both fiction and non-fiction
https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2018/02/06/books-about-death-and-dying 48 books both fiction and non-fiction
Socrates on death (470-399 B.C.)
“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils.” This brave and humorous man was ironically sentenced to death by drinking hemlock for his “threatening” philosophies. Shortly before his final breath, it is written Socrates described his death as a release of his soul from his body.