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

Barbara Katz Rothman Author Of A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization
By Barbara Katz Rothman

The Books I Picked & Why

The American Way of Death Revisited

By Jessica Mitford

The American Way of Death Revisited

Why 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.


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Passing on: The Social Organization of Dying

By David Sudnow

Passing on: The Social Organization of Dying

Why 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.  


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Sudden Death and the Myth of CPR

By Stefan Timmermans

Sudden Death and the Myth of CPR

Why 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?


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

By Mort Gerberg

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

Why 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?"


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

By Barbara Ehrenreich

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

Why 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)


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