The best books about funerals

8 authors have picked their favorite books about funerals and why they recommend each book.

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Life and death in Spitalfields, 1700-1850

By Margaret Cox,

Book cover of Life and death in Spitalfields, 1700-1850

Excavations in the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, London in 1984-9 uncovered 1000 skeletons, of which 387 were in coffins with inscribed plates giving the names and ages of the deceased. A mixed team of specialists were able to analyse the bodies and follow up the documentary evidence to reveal extraordinary details of life, dentistry and funerary practices between 1729 and 1859 in this historically rich part of London.


Who am I?

I am an archaeologist, mostly working in the Roman period. Until I retired in 2011, I was the Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies and Reader in Roman Material Culture at Newcastle University, having previously been the Director of Archaeological Museums for the University. My working life started by specialising in identifying those small items which come out of every excavation, but more and more I became interested in what those artefacts told us about the people who lived on the site. Reading books about peoples’ lives in other cultures and periods provides insight into those people of the past for whom we have little documentary evidence.


I wrote...

Roman Woman: Everyday Life in Hadrian's Britain

By Lindsay Allason-Jones,

Book cover of Roman Woman: Everyday Life in Hadrian's Britain

What is my book about?

The year is AD 133. Hadrian is Emperor of Rome and all its vast empire, including Britannia. The greater part of that island has long been under imperial rule and the Roman legions control most of the land, quelling uprisings and building new forts and towns. Around the fortress of Eboracum (now known as York), a bustling garrison settlement is developing, while along the north-west frontier of Hadrian's empire, the legions are completing the construction of a mighty wall. Introducing us to this world is Senovara, born into the Parisi, a local tribe whose customs have been little changed by Roman rule. But she is also the young wife of Quintus, a veteran of the 6th Legion Victrix. Settling in Quintus's home is both bewildering and awe-inspiring for Senovara as she seeks to adjust to Eboracum's cosmopolitan environment, come to terms with new customs and reconcile their cultural differences. Senovara finds that daily life in the settlement can be harsh; a constant struggle to provide her family with fresh food, water and warmth. Yet there is much enjoyment to be had as well, at the public baths or with new friends. There is also the excitement of religious festivals and in the regular news from the frontier, and peril in the form of a deadly fever which sweeps through Eboracum, forcing Senovara and her children to flee to her brother in the countryside.

Roman Woman
is an immersive, compelling narrative which gets to the heart of what life was like for everyday people in Roman Britain.

Whichwood

By Tahereh Mafi,

Book cover of Whichwood

In this fantastical story, which is a companion to Furthermore, a lonesome girl scrubs the skin of the dead to ready souls for the afterlife. (Sounds properly spooky, doesn’t it? I love when books give me chills!) And when things are especially dark, as they are for Laylee, friendship shines all the brighter once it is found. 


Who am I?

Each summer when I was small, I visited my gram. During the day we would go off on one adventure or another—and at night, she enticed me to sleep with the promise of a story. Most often, she read Grimm’s fairytales to me. Full of darkness and also hope (!), they were, and still are, some of my very favorites. And they inspire what I most enjoy writing and reading.


I wrote...

The Plentiful Darkness

By Heather Kassner, Iz Ptica (illustrator),

Book cover of The Plentiful Darkness

What is my book about?

In Warybone, twelve-year-old Rooney de Barra collects precious moonlight, which she draws from the evening sky with her (very rare and most magical) lunar mirror. All the while she tries to avoid the rival roughhouse boys, and yet another, more terrifying danger: the dreaded magician that's been disappearing children in the night.

When Trick Aidan, the worst of the roughhouse boys, steals her lunar mirror, Rooney will do whatever it takes to get it back. Even if it means leaping into a pool of darkness after it swallows Trick and her mirror. Or braving the Plentiful Darkness, a bewitching world devoid of sky and stars. Or begrudgingly teaming up with Trick to confront the magician and unravel the magic that has trapped Warybone’s children.

The American Way of Death Revisited

By Jessica Mitford,

Book cover of The American Way of Death Revisited

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)…


Who am I?

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.  

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

By Jennifer E. Smith,

Book cover of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

As much as I adore learning new languages, books that transport me to English-speaking countries across the pond are some of my favorites. I love romantic comedies set in Great Britain. 

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight takes us to England, although much of the story is about getting there, which I didn’t mind at all. (Life is about the journey.) This is another fun, young adult romance with more than just fluff, and tons of heart. 


Who am I?

I write romantic comedies for readers who want adventure in the great wide somewhere and can’t wait until the next time they hear the words bon voyage! Even as a young, midwestern farm girl, I always had a passion for languages and a strong desire to travel. As soon I flew the coop and went to college, I made friends with students from all over the world. Eventually, I followed my travel plans, learned to speak three languages, and now can’t decide whether to adopt London or Paris as my European hometown. 


I wrote...

Perfume Princess

By Kristina Miranda,

Book cover of Perfume Princess

What is my book about?

For six weeks every summer, Lily Carter endures custody visits to Manhattan and Paris where she lives in the shadow of her famous mother and supermodel sister—until the summer that changes everything. Two weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday, Lily is thrust into her mother’s latest perfume campaign and life goes down the eau de toilet

Forced into the spotlight and paired up with the heart-stopping pop star du jour, Lily is tempted by the very lifestyle she’s always rejected and must decide whether to bloom and find love in the world she despises, or remain loyal to everything she’s ever cherished.

Greening Death

By Suzanne Kelly,

Book cover of Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth

A great anthropological read about the past 150 years of death care in this country. She discusses the ingrained traditions held so closely by the public over decades of death. There are so many destructive practices we cling to when someone dies. Suzanne unpacks the sack of societal behaviors that have been none-too-friendly on our precious environment. Our customary American demise practices, which include the procedure of embalming, hardwood and metal caskets, and concrete burial vaults and grave liners, only strengthen this saga.


Who am I?

Saving the planet one death at a time is truly what the world needs now: to reduce our carbon footprint and go out in eco-friendly style. As the one-woman funeral service in the rural town of Boring, Oregon, I support the philosophy of old-school burial practices that are kinder to both humans, the earth, and our wallets. I have humbly been baptized the Green Reaper for my passionate advocacy of green burial, and as an undertaker and the owner and undertaker of Cornerstone Funeral, the first green funeral home in the Portland area. I love to devour all literature possible on green burial and environmentally friendly death care.


I wrote...

The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial

By Elizabeth Fournier,

Book cover of The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial

What is my book about?

Funeral expenses in the United States average more than $10,000. And every year conventional funerals bury millions of tons of wood, concrete, and metals, as well as millions of gallons of carcinogenic embalming fluid. There is a better way, and Elizabeth Fournier, affectionately dubbed the “Green Reaper,” walks you through it, step-by-step. She provides comprehensive and compassionate guidance, covering everything from green burial planning and home funeral basics to legal guidelines and outside-the-box options, such as burials at sea. Fournier points the way to green burial practices that consider both the environmental well-being of the planet and the economic well-being of loved ones.

Twilight

By William Gay,

Book cover of Twilight

It’s fitting that the creepiest novel on my list begins with a wagon full of corpses and a rural graveyard pocked with exhumed caskets. William Gay’s Twilight revolves around the dreadful plots of Fenton Breece, a dapper, well-spoken mortician whose ghoulish habits will keep even the heartiest reader up at night. After witnessing the undertaker stealing a family burial vault, young Tyler and his sister Corrie discover that Breece has been mutilating the bodies of the people he buries. A blackmail plot ensues, an assassin hired. Then things get really, really bad. 


Who am I?

I was lucky enough to land a job teaching English at the University of Montevallo, a small public liberal arts college where I have had the opportunity to explore my strange academic interests and teach classes with titles like “Am I Human?” and “Southern Neogothic II: Disability, Hicksploitation, Meat.” When I got tenure, I also had the time and freedom to try my hand at writing the kind of Southern Gothic, Bizarro, and Horror tales that I have always adored. From Mad Magazine to MaddAddam, I have always craved dark satire, body horror, and the grotesque. It’s in my blood. 


I wrote...

Ballad of Jasmine Wills

By Lee Rozelle,

Book cover of Ballad of Jasmine Wills

What is my book about?

Channel surfing, I saw a commercial where people were eating worms for the reality TV program Fear Factor. I thought, why would somebody watch worm eating for entertainment? What would I eat for all that media attention? These questions compelled me to write a book where an overweight banker is kidnapped and made the star of a reality TV show called Diet Extreme. Locked inside a studio in the middle of the Alabama woods, Jasmine is tortured with fancy food, brainwashed with self-help videos, and badgered with exercise routines for her growing mass of livestream fans.  

The American Resting Place

By Marilyn Yalom,

Book cover of The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

Even though it’s 12 years old, this is still the definitive history of burial grounds in America. I honestly cannot rave about it enough. Although the book looks dry and intimidating, I promise you it’s anything but. Yalom provides solid information about the history of burial and burial grounds in the United States, leavened with personal reflections inspired by the graveyards she visited as she researched. If anything can inspire a desire to travel to visit cemeteries, The American Resting Place will set your feet on the path.


Who am I?

I grew up down the road from the little graveyard where my grandfather was buried. By accident, I discovered the glorious Victorian-era Highgate Cemetery in 1991. A friend sent me to explore Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery – and I was hooked. I’ve gone from stopping by cemeteries when I travel to building vacations around cemeteries I want to see. I’ve gone out of my way to visit cemeteries in the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Japan, Spain, Singapore, and across the United States. At the moment, I’m editing Death’s Garden Revisited, in which 40 contributors answer the question: “Why is it important to visit cemeteries?”


I wrote...

199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die

By Loren Rhoads,

Book cover of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die

What is my book about?

Over 3 million tourists flock to Paris's Pere Lachaise Cemetery each year. They are lured there, and to many cemeteries around the world, by a combination of natural beauty, ornate tombstones, notable residents, vivid history, and even wildlife. Many also visit Mount Koya cemetery in Japan, where 10,000 lanterns illuminate the forest setting, or Oaxaca, Mexico to witness the Day of the Dead. 

199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die features these unforgettable cemeteries, along with 196 more, in more than 300 photographs. In this bucket list of travel musts, author Loren Rhoads, who hosts the popular Cemetery Travel blog, details the history and features that make each destination unique.

This Party's Dead

By Erica Buist,

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

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.

Who am I?

For 10 years, I edited Morbid Curiosity magazine. I believe that curiosity is the most important aspect of being human. More than the simple desire to know things, curiosity is a tool as powerful as a scalpel or a searchlight. Curiosity is a way to effect change, in our own lives and in the world. Morbid Curiosity magazine taught me to believe in the power of story, especially in the form of memoirs. Only by telling our own stories can we overcome our fears and find inspiration in death. Investigating my own relationship with death led me to write This Morbid Life. These books illuminated my search.


I wrote...

This Morbid Life: Essays

By Loren Rhoads,

Book cover of This Morbid Life: Essays

What is my book about?

What others have called an obsession with death is really a desperate romance with life. Guided by curiosity, compassion, and a truly strange sense of humor, This Morbid Life is detailed through a death-positive collection of 45 confessional essays. Along the way, author Loren Rhoads takes prom pictures in a cemetery, spends a couple of days in a cadaver lab, eats bugs, survives the AIDS epidemic, chases ghosts, and publishes a little magazine called Morbid Curiosity. These emotionally charged essays showcase the morbid curiosity and dark humor that transformed Rhoads into a leading voice of the curious and creepy.

The Political Lives of Dead Bodies

By Katherine Verdery,

Book cover of The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change

This was one of the first books I read about the politics of the dead and it reshaped the way I thought about dead bodies. It is readable, provocative, and challenged Mark Twain’s idea that “none but the dead have free speech.” Even after dying, the dead can be used for political purposes and Verdery lifts the veil on the postsocialist world to discuss how the reburial of bodies, be it Lenin or war graves, exposes the politics of society. She originally delivered this as a series of lectures at Columbia University and although its findings may seem a bit dated now, almost every writer who covers the war dead lists this book in their bibliography. 


Who am I?

I am a professor who holds a Ph.D. in American history. I researched several archives in the United States and Paris, France to write this book and I am very proud of it. I was inspired to write this story mainly from listening to the friends of my parents, when I was younger, who went to war in Vietnam and came back broken yet committed to making the world a better place. The kindness they showed me belied the stories they shared of their harrowing experiences and I wanted to understand how this divergence happened in men that rarely spoke of their past.      


I wrote...

Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921

By Shannon Bontrager,

Book cover of Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921

What is my book about?

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln promised fallen soldiers that the living would remember their sacrifice. He obligated Americans, and the nation, to remember the war dead who sacrificed their lives for the noble cause of freedom. But wars against indigenous peoples and wars in places that laid beyond the boundaries of the nation, in Cuba, the Philippines, and in France, tested Americans’ resolve to fulfill Lincoln’s promise. Could a soldier who died for the American empire in the Philippines or in French trenches be remembered the same way as a soldier who died for the emancipation of slaves? This is a story of how the American promise to remember fallen soldiers changed over time and how that promise defines the very nature of our democracy. 

A Writer's Notebook

By W. Somerset Maugham,

Book cover of A Writer's Notebook

An incredible recounting by an author who remained current for over two centuries and in several art forms – plays, films, novels, and short stories. Orphaned at ten, and giving up a promising career in the medical profession to become a writer in his early twenties, Maugham reached the pinnacle of success and wealth in this perilous profession. In this collection of sketches, vignettes, and anecdotes, he looks back on his life at the Biblical age of “three score and ten” and accepts his shortcomings, mistakes, and secrets. His only lament: that there were four more novels left to write – the unreachable star that had been his guiding light throughout life. Five years later, he had finished three…


Who am I?

I have been a writer for more than twenty years and have favored pursuing “truth in fiction” rather than “money in formula.” As author Edward St. Aubyn quotes: “Money has value because it can be exchanged for something else. Art only has value because it can’t.” I find books about writers are closer to my lived experience and connect me intimately with both the characters and their author.


I wrote...

Circles in the Spiral

By Shane Joseph,

Book cover of Circles in the Spiral

What is my book about?

A psychological thriller, a black comedy, a libidinous romp, a tortured past coming full circle, a writer dealing with looming irrelevance and the dreaded “block” – what is this book really about? Circles in the Spiral threads all these spiraling themes into a tale of redemption set during a fake news campaign to sabotage the Canadian Federal Election of 2019.  

Most importantly, it is a novel about second chances, a theme that plays out consistently in the author’s work.

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