The best books on the ever-more-timely topic of death and dying

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been writing about birth for decades – how it became a medical process, managed by a surgical specialty in a factory-like setting. I’ve worked with contemporary midwives who are trying to reclaim birth, to move it back home, back to physiological and loving care. And over and over again, I see the similarities to the other gate of life – how death and dying also left home and went into the hospital, where people die, as they birth, pretty much alone – with perhaps a ‘visitor’ allowed. Covid made it worse – but in birth and death, it allowed the hospitals to return to what medicine considered essential: medical procedures, not human connections. 


I wrote...

A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization

By Barbara Katz Rothman,

Book cover of A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization

What is my book about?

It’s not all I write about, but from my dissertation onward I have been studying birth – as a medicalized ‘procedure’ done on not by the person giving birth, and as a social movement in response to that medicalization. And then, almost by accident, I found myself in the world of Food Studies. 

At first, it was funny how many things were similar between the two movements, from the ‘turn to the French’ in the 1950s (Lamaze and Bon Appetit) to the turn to the hippies in the 70s. But I listened to artisanal food makers and heard things that midwives say, like using technology, not being used by it, and I started taking it more seriously. These are similar social movements with similar values—health, community, human relationships – fighting similar battles against large-scale industries.  So I wrote a book about it.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The American Way of Death Revisited

Barbara Katz Rothman Why did I love this book?

This is the classic, the moment at which the industrialization of death—like so much else in our lives—was made visible. And it was the start of a social movement to reclaim death as part of our social, interconnected lives. Mitford focused on the funeral industry, and how it turned death into a commodity – ‘ashes’ isn’t a good word because people would scatter them, but call them ‘human remains’ and you can charge to put them somewhere. Death often makes people feel remorse, even guilt – ah! That can be ‘satisfied’ by the purchase of a fine funeral. 

Mitford closed the book with a call for a social movement: “Whether the narrow passageway to the unknown, which everybody must cross, will continue to be as cluttered and expensive to traverse as it is today, depends in the last analysis entirely on those travelers who have not yet reached it.” (p228) We’re still working on it.

By Jessica Mitford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The American Way of Death Revisited as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Only the scathing wit and searching intelligence of Jessica Mitford could turn an exposé of the American funeral industry into a book that is at once deadly serious and side-splittingly funny. When first published in 1963, this landmark of investigative journalism became a runaway bestseller and resulted in legislation to protect grieving families from the unscrupulous sales practices of those in "the dismal trade."

Just before her death in 1996, Mitford thoroughly revised and updated her classic study. The American Way of Death Revisited confronts new trends, including the success of the profession's lobbyists in Washington, inflated cremation costs, the…


Book cover of Passing on: The Social Organization of Dying

Barbara Katz Rothman Why did I love this book?

Sudnow is maybe the most-assigned book I use in teaching. I start every medical sociology course with Sudnow – if you can get students to understand that death itself is not just “real” and self-evident but socially constructed, then you can calm them down enough to listen to how birth or cancer or Attention Deficit Disorder is socially constructed. This short book – just 176 pages – was based on Sudnow’s dissertation (thus also good to share with anyone struggling through writing a dissertation!) The short message is that ‘social value’ affected attempts to revive people, to rescue them from death. The longer message is taking what I call the ‘watchwords of my faith’ as a sociologist, that ‘situations defined as real are real in their consequences,’ and putting them to work.  

We can’t credit Sudnow with starting the Sociology of Death as an area but for me, he solidified it. I find it sad that the book is so ‘overlooked,’ and Sudnow is valued more for his work on piano playing.  

By David Sudnow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Passing on as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Passing on: The Social Organization of Dying [Jun 01, 1967] Sudnow, David


Book cover of Sudden Death and the Myth of CPR

Barbara Katz Rothman Why did I love this book?

This is a brilliant, thoughtful analysis of how sudden death is managed and can be read as a response to Sudnow — and I do assign it for that reason. But what I really love is leaving it out in my office and seeing people’s reactions. “The myth of CPR? What?!” People are horrified. Timmermans clearly shows, and it has been well documented, that CPR works way better on television than it does in real life. But its use has become so standardized that EMTs, as well as family members, were horrified when CPR wasn’t attempted on every dead body picked up during the pandemic.

If your beloved 93-year-old great grandma was just finishing the last bites of her favorite food that you spent all day making when she slumped over – should you hold her tight, whisper that you love her, or quickly put her on her back, break her ribs, apply electric shocks and see if she can’t spend another few weeks dying?

By Stefan Timmermans,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sudden Death and the Myth of CPR as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sudden Death and the Myth of CPR is for anyone who has taken a CPR course or who believes the images from television dramas. It is also for families of victims and survivors of CPR. It will engage emergency personnel, others in the medical field, and anyone concerned with ethical issues of death and dying. Anyone who has ever taken a CPR course has wondered, \u0022What would happen if I actually had to use CPR?\u0022 In Western societies, the lifesaving power of resuscitation has the status of a revered cultural myth. It promises life in the face of sudden death,…


Book cover of Last Laughs: Cartoons About Aging, Retirement ... and the Great Beyond

Barbara Katz Rothman Why did I love this book?

There was a death in my family years back, and somehow after a long and wrenching day at the hospital, we were sitting around my dining room table at a late-night long-delayed dinner – and we were laughing. My brother came into the kitchen, worried about the children present: what were they learning? I answered: They’re learning how to bury us. Death, even death – and I am heavily grieving a loss right now – can be a moment for laughter, the sheer absurdity of life, the grief and sorrow expressed in crying and in laughing. There are other good books that do this, that take a more intellectual approach – but honestly, I admire the chutzpah of Greenberg editing a book of cartoons on death. 

The range is from the silly, the grim reaper at the door introducing the fat lady, ‘here to sing for you,' to ones that really are good sociological critiques: asking someone in the hospital waiting room, “When he goes, should we tell you directly or is there some euphemism you prefer?"

By Mort Gerberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Last Laughs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A volume of previously unpublished cartoons by top industry names celebrates the wayward experiences of the baby boomer generation with contributions by such artists as Leo Cullum, Jack Ziegler, and Lee Lorenz. 50,000 first printing.


Book cover of Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

Barbara Katz Rothman Why did I love this book?

Sometimes I think people just don’t get smarter, or write smarter books, than Ehrenreich, so of course, in a 5 best list, I’m going to put one of hers up. The title of her book comes from obituaries – at a certain point, not entirely clear just when, a death does not have to be explained. When a 93-year-old dies, we don’t have to ask ‘of what?’ the way we do when a 47-year-old does. And yet – what about 73? We ask, and we blame: did they smoke? Not exercise?  Eat poorly? Not get screened early enough?  

While others have focused on the over-medicalization of dying, the repeated hospitalizations, the tubes, and wires, Ehrenreich is looking at the medicalization of living to be old – living from one wellness activity to the next, interspersed with medical testing.  In a world in which ‘health’ means medicine, health care means insurance for medical services, can we move past that into real care, into enjoying our lives?  “Being old enough to die is an achievement, not a defeat, and the freedom it brings is worth celebrating.” (p13)

By Barbara Ehrenreich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Natural Causes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We tend to believe we have agency over our bodies, our minds and even our deaths. Yet emerging science challenges our assumptions of mastery: at the microscopic level, the cells in our bodies facilitate tumours and attack other cells, with life-threatening consequences.

In this revelatory book, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that our bodies are a battleground over which we have little control, and lays bare the cultural charades that shield us from this knowledge. Challenging everything we think we know about life and death, she also offers hope - that we find our place in a natural world teeming with animation…


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Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

Book cover of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

Edward Benzel Author Of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Coming from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, I have witnessed many successes and failures over more than four decades. I recognized decades ago that communication with patients at a level that involves emotions is a necessary part of being a complete physician. This involves being empathetic and, henceforth, digging deep to find the strength to be transparent, vulnerable, compassionate, understanding, and, when needed, forceful (some would call this paternalism). Although the five books I have chosen to highlight vary widely in content, they have one common theme – finding within us the will and wherewithal to succeed.

Edward's book list on awakening of the strengths that are hidden deep inside each of us

What is my book about?

My book is a collection of monthly Editor-in-Chief letters to the readership of World Neurosurgery, a journal that I edit. Each essay is short and sweet. The letters were written for neurosurgeons but have been re-edited so that they apply to all human beings. They cover topics such as leadership, empathy, vulnerability, stress, burnout, and on and on…. These essays are relevant for all who strive to craft a better version of themselves.

Life lessons learned by the author during his 40+ year neurosurgery career are shared and translated into real-life scenarios. Between the covers are many lessons that are derived from the experiences of the author and then applied to all humans. The mastering of these lessons should translate into a sense of pride and satisfaction. In keeping with the theme of the book, this process should culminate in the feeling at the end of the day that ‘Today was, indeed, a good day.’

Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

What is this book about?

About the Book
Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon features many topics that pertain to how neurosurgeons interact with others and how each of us can use introspection to modify how we are using tools and strategies such as empathy, respect, stress management, and much more.
This book provides some insights into leadership, effective communication, and fulfillment from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, and it causes the reader to think about and consider many, many attributes of a leader.
We all want to have a good day. This book provides strategies…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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