The best books to deal with general death anxiety

Who am I?

I’m Erica Buist, a writer, journalist, lecturer, and playwright based in London. I became interested in death anxiety when I realised mine was out of control after my partner and I found his father dead. Reading up on death anxiety, it struck me that some cultures seem to deal with it by throwing festivals for the dead, which seemed to be the very opposite of our policy of not talking about it unless absolutely necessary. I thought I’d better go and see how they managed that—so I did. Six years, eight countries and about a million espressos later, my book was published.


I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

By the time Erica Buist's father-in-law Chris was discovered, upstairs in his bed, his book resting on his chest, he had been dead for over a week. She searched for answers (the artery-clogging cheeses in his fridge?) and tried to reason with herself (does daughter-in-law even feature in the grief hierarchy?) and eventually landed on an inevitable, uncomfortable truth: everybody dies.

With Mexico's Day of the Dead festivities as a starting point, Erica decided to confront death head-on by visiting seven death festivals around the world—one for every day they didn't find Chris. From Mexico to Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan, and finally Indonesia—with a stopover in New Orleans, where the dead outnumber the living ten to one—Erica searched for the answers to questions around death anxiety.

The books I picked & why

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The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski

Book cover of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

Why this book?

In the face of abject terror that was put in place by evolution and exacerbated by culture, nothing is quite as calming as facts and science. These psychologists spent three decades testing the various ways people reacted when given a reminder of their own mortality, and they were startlingly uniform. For example, when given a death reminder people are more likely to give in to prejudice, to vote for ‘charismatic’ leaders, to have the urge to shop or place a higher value on material goods, and become more defensive of their cultural symbols. 

For me, it’s incredibly comforting to realise the behaviour we see every day—or even in ourselves when bereaved—is a predictable psychological response.

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Worm at the Core as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Proof of a ground-breaking psychological theory: that the fear of death is the hidden motive behind almost everything we do.

'A joy ... The Worm at the Core asks how humans can learn to live happily while being intelligently aware of our impending doom, how knowledge of death affects the decisions we make every day, and how we can stop fear and anxiety overwhelming us' Charlotte Runcie, Daily Telegraph

'Provocative, lucid and fascinating' Financial Times

'An important, superbly readable and potentially life-changing book . . . suggests one should confront mortality in order to live an authentic life' Tim Lott,…


The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

By Sogyal Rinpoche,

Book cover of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Why this book?

A lot of people I spoke to in Britain and the US regarded thanatophobiathe fear of dyingas the right, proper, and ordinary human state. So it’s very comforting to read about our death culture through the eyes of someone who wasn’t raised that way. In TTBOLAD, the ‘western’ view of death is held up and examined as very much one of many ways to respond to itand while it’s certainly not healthy to ignore it until you’re dealing with grief or you’re dying yourself (ie. when you’re at your highest moment of trauma), with this book it becomes very clear, very quickly that it’s not the only option.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

By Sogyal Rinpoche,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Explains the Tibetan understanding of what happens when a person dies, and how this can help in a person's daily life, in caring for the terminally ill and the bereaved, and to deepen one's understanding of life.

Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality

By Jules Howard,

Book cover of Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality

Why this book?

This may seem like an odd recommendation, but Jules’s exploration of the way death keeps the earth going is not only fascinating, but it also widens the perspective away from humans to the animal kingdoma handy reminder that we’re as much a part of said kingdom as any others species. It’s always a useful reminder that, despite what our individualist culture and stories and tell us, death is not always an aberration, something a sneaky lawyer hid in the small print; it’s normal, necessary, and actually very helpful.

Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality

By Jules Howard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

There is nothing more life-affirming than understanding death in all its forms.

Natural selection depends on death; little would evolve without it. Every animal on Earth is shaped by its presence and fashioned by its spectre. We are all survivors of starvation, drought, volcanic eruptions, meteorites, plagues, parasites, predators, freak weather events, tussles and scraps, and our bodies are shaped by these ancient events.

Some animals live for just a few hours as adults, others prefer to kill themselves rather than live unnecessarily for longer than they are needed, and there are a number of animals that can live for…

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

By Caitlin Doughty,

Book cover of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

Why this book?

A classic recommendation throughout the death world, but Caitlin’s memoir about working in a crematorium is shot through with activism, challenging society’s fear of death and the corpse, and makes a brilliant argument for it being the root of a lot of avoidable problems.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

By Caitlin Doughty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Smoke Gets in Your Eyes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Armed with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre, Caitlin Doughty took a job at a crematory and turned morbid curiosity into her life's work. She cared for bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, and became an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. In this best-selling memoir, brimming with gallows humor and vivid characters, she marvels at the gruesome history of undertaking and relates her unique coming-of-age story with bold curiosity and mordant wit. By turns hilarious, dark, and uplifting, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes reveals how the fear of dying warps our…


How Best to Avoid Dying: Stories

By Owen Egerton,

Book cover of How Best to Avoid Dying: Stories

Why this book?

The only fiction book on my list, I picked up Owen’s book of short stories while I was at a writer’s residency in Vermont, writing my own book. It’s a delightful collection, wickedly funny, with the exact mix of dread, terror, humour, and lightheartedness I was looking for.

How Best to Avoid Dying: Stories

By Owen Egerton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Best to Avoid Dying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


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