The best books on death, medicine, and end of life care

Who am I?

As a physician, I have been in innumerable situations where people and their loved ones were facing off a serious illness but felt like they were completely lost. The reality of the end of life is nothing like how we have experienced it throughout our history. I have written about end-of-life care for the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic amongst others, but felt that this was such an important and vast issue that it deserved a deeper dive. My research also focuses on end-of-life care and I was able to weave a story presented through stories, historical texts, and research papers in a way that readers will feel like they have a map of just how life and death have evolved with scientific advances and a changing society. It doesn’t hurt that I trained at Harvard Medical School and Duke University, providing me the best environments to shape my views and perspective.

I wrote...

Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life

By Haider Warraich,

Book cover of Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life

What is my book about?

As a physician, on an almost daily basis, I have countless encounters with patients and family members who find themselves in some of the most difficult circumstances in their lives. Many of them find themselves facing death, an experience that they find completely alien and foreign. The fact is that how we die these days is diametrically different from how we have died as a species for our entire history.

Modern Death provides a historical and scientific review of how death and dying have evolved over the past few decades and provides an in-depth overview of the landscape of the end of life in our society. I tackle some of the basic questions of death – the whys, wheres, whens, and hows – but also some larger questions. Technological and social changes have made death and dying completely unfamiliar terrain for most people. I wanted to write something that would spread this message beyond the four walls of my clinic or hospital.

The books I picked & why

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Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

By Atul Gawande,

Book cover of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Why this book?

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, who wrote this influential book inspired by both his work at the cutting edge of medicine and as a son with ailing parents. His work forces us to confront our mortality, and the health system designed to provide a false promise of immortality.

How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

By Sherwin B. Nuland,

Book cover of How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

Why this book?

Sherwin Nuland wrote How We Die in the 1990s and this book won the National Book Award. In this genre, How We Die was the first major book reframing how end-of-life care was changed with the advent of modern medicine. While a bit out of date already, it remains a seminal read in this space from an authoritative surgeon and historian.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

By Siddhartha Mukherjee,

Book cover of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Why this book?

Cancer is one of the leading killer of people, and has become an iconic disease of our age, cutting many lives short. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book provides an inside look at how we have come to better understand this disease and curb its effects for many, but not all.

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi,

Book cover of When Breath Becomes Air

Why this book?

Paul Kalanithi was a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with a terminal illness who took to the pen to describe the last of his days in a stirring memoir that was eventually finished by his wife after his untimely demise.

Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life's End

By Barbara Coombs Lee,

Book cover of Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life's End

Why this book?

Barbara Coombs Lee is a nurse, lawyer, and leader of the movement to promote assisted death in the United States and around the world for people with terminal illnesses. Lee is a patient advocate at heart, a position she embodied given her work as a nurse. In this book, she provides a humane, eye witness view of what she saw as a nurse that inspired her to spark a movement that strives to give patients control over their bodies and medical decisions.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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