The best books for the death curious

The Books I Picked & Why

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

By Caitlin Doughty

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

Why this book?

I liked Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty's first book. It was breezy and fun, with the same sense of humor as her Ask A Mortician videos. In From Here to Eternity, her quest for the one right way to respectfully handle the dead broadens into an exploration of all the ways people around the world commemorate their loved ones and deal with their remains. Caitlin crisscrosses the globe, trying to understand what the dead mean to us and how we can keep their memories alive. There's a lot to think about -- and a lot of comfort -- here.


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A Tomb With a View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

By Peter Ross

A Tomb With a View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Why this book?

As much as Ross's book is about visiting graveyards, it's even more about the people who work in graveyards: from gravediggers to tour guides to historians to memorial artists. One of my favorite essays in the book is about the Iranian father who built an exquisite monument to his 11-year-old son in London's poshest cemetery. Another favorite is the discussion with a modern maker of death masks. The eulogy for "the best-known guide at the most famous cemetery in Ireland" nearly brought me to tears. Ross tells the stories of the graveyards and their dead, true, but most of all he conveys that the relationships between the dead and those who remain deepen with time. What a lovely, life-affirming book.


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Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin

By Megan Rosenbloom

Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin

Why this book?

Medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom works as part of a team traveling the world to scientifically test books allegedly bound in human skin. Her curiosity is tempered by compassion as she tells the stories of the librarians who preserve the books, those who collected them, and those who may or may not have provided their hides to the books themselves. This could easily be a gruesome history, but it's not. Rosenbloom's humanity shines through, as she pursues answers to her questions with remarkable sensitivity.


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This Party's Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World's Death Festivals

By Erica Buist

This Party's Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World's Death Festivals

Why this book?

After Erica Buist's father-in-law died at home, a week passed before she and her husband found the body. Grief -- and the realization that everyone she knew would someday die -- hit Buist so hard that she couldn't leave her apartment. As a way to heal, she decided to travel to seven festivals around the world where death is celebrated, where the dead are still treated as part of the family. Her subsequent adventures in Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan, Indonesia, and New Orleans are both poignant and heartening. Her sense of humor shines through her experiences and makes this book laugh-out-loud funny at points.


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Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

By Christine Montross

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Why this book?

Before she decided to study medicine, Christine Montross was a poet. She deploys the full beauty of language to explore how it feels to be a first-year medical student dissecting a cadaver in her gross anatomy class. Over the course of the year, Montross conveys much information about how the human body works and how doctors-to-be learn, but her primary focus is on her emotional journey, which spanned from being a student with no understanding beyond her own body to being someone able to heal anyone who comes to her for help. Lovely, powerful, and instructive, I hope this book is required reading for incoming med students. 


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