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Facing Death: My Top 5 Nonfiction Books About Death

Death is a part of life. There’s no escaping it and while some people dread death and others embrace it, we’re fascinated by it. For example, think of the last movie you saw without a death in it. Even Disney movies kill off their villains most of the time.

So lately, I’ve been reading a lot about death. I was always fascinated by the True Crime side of things, but never really thought about what it would be like on the other side. Books about death or facing death can take on all sorts of feelings. Usually they fall into two camp: the serious and the irreverent.

For obvious reasons, I find the irreverent more fun. While they can still be terrifying and unnerving, they take the edge off a bit. I’m not including adventure nonfiction in this list, but if you’re looking for those, you can find them here.

So, which books should you look at to learn more about death?

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

Facing Death: My Top 5 Nonfiction Books About DeathSmoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Social Science

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Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead.

Written by Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is one of my favourite non-fiction books. It not only looks into death, but the death industry. Not for the faint of heart, the book actually has one of the most terrifying descriptions of embalming that I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil it here, but holy h*ck. I had to put the book down and take a walk once I’d read it. In this tour through the underworld, we learn more about crematoriums and how your body is treated after death. Expect to read something gross immediately followed by a joke or some kind of humour. It’s fantastic. If you don’t read any other book off this list, at least try this one.

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

Facing Death: My Top 5 Nonfiction Books About DeathFrom Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

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Fascinated by our pervasive fear of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty embarks on a global expedition to discover how other cultures care for the dead. From Zoroastrian sky burials to wish-granting Bolivian skulls, she investigates the world’s funerary customs and expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with dignity. Her account questions the rituals of the American funeral industry—especially chemical embalming—and suggests that the most effective traditions are those that allow mourners to personally attend to the body of the deceased. Exquisitely illustrated by artist Landis Blair, From Here to Eternity is an adventure into the morbid unknown, a fascinating tour through the unique ways people everywhere confront mortality.

Another book by Caitlin Doughty, this goes outside the North American death market and into the wide world. With the same trademark irreverence as her first novel, From Here to Eternity takes us on a ride. We learn about tribes of people who mummify their dead and allow those mummies to keep living among them. There are sky burials, open air cremation, and picking through bones. The idea that we’ve all become too cut off from death is an interesting idea to me.

Still, expect some gross and bizarre moments. As she travels the world, Caitlin learns more about how the cultures themselves relate to death. The grim reaper is coming for us, why not have an LED Buddha to pray for us?

Assassination Vacation

Facing Death: My Top 5 Nonfiction Books About DeathAssassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Genres: Literary Criticism, General, Social Science, Popular Culture, Travel

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New York Times bestselling author of The Word Shipmates and contributor to NPR’s “This American Life” Sarah Vowell embarks on a road trip to sites of political violence, from Washington DC to Alaska, to better understand our nation’s ever-evolving political system and history.

Keeping with the theme of death-themed Road Trips, the delightful Sarah Vowell loves dead presidents. Or at least she likes them enough to take a road trip to where they were assassinated. Witty and irreverent in a dry way, Sarah Vowell is always a pleasure to read. She constantly has to confront her own macabre fascination with the topic of death. Peppering in stories of what the presidents did while alive, Vowell confronts America’s focus on death at a distance. If you like American presidents or even if you don’t, this is well worth the read.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Facing Death: My Top 5 Nonfiction Books About DeathUnderground by Haruki Murakami
Genres: History, Psychology, Social Psychology, Cults, True Crime

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In this haunting work of journalistic investigation, Haruki Murakami tells the story of the horrific terrorist attack on Japanese soil that shook the entire world.  On a clear spring day in 1995, five members of a religious cult unleashed poison gas on the Tokyo subway system. In attempt to discover why, Haruki Murakmi talks to the people who lived through the catastrophe, and in so doing lays bare the Japanese psyche. As he discerns the fundamental issues that led to the attack, Murakami paints a clear vision of an event that could occur anytime, anywhere.

Written by Haruki Murakami, Underground is the only serious book on this list. While the other books focus on serious topics, there is a humour to their telling. Underground isn’t here to make anyone laugh or to tell jokes. It’s here to examine how this could have happened and why the way Japanese society dealt with the attack just made it worse. A collection of stories told by the survivors, Underground is unnerving in a way I didn’t expect. The idea of being helpless on a train like that and not knowing what was happening, I’m not sure if I would have done anything differently.

The Tokyo Subway Sarin Gas Attacks are famous and for good reason. If you were trapped underground in a train, beginning to cough as the colourless, odourless gas filled the train… would you fare any better?

10 Ways to Recycle a Corpse: and 100 More Dreadfully Distasteful Lists

Facing Death: My Top 5 Nonfiction Books About Death10 Ways to Recycle a Corpse by Karl Shaw
Genres: Humor, Crime

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Prepare to be even more revolted, flabbergasted, appalled, and completely entertained by this incredible follow-up collection of absolutely true trivia from the author of 5 People Who Died During Sex. Nothing is too insane, too inane, or too sacred for Karl Shaw’s eclectic lists of the world’s very worst.   DID YOU KNOW… …that according to recent estimates (2010) your body is worth between $10,000-$100,000 on today’s open market—from companies legitimately trading body parts from willing donors to recognized medical facilities?

Okay, you caught me. This is the best book about death. 10 Ways to Recycle a Corpse takes irreverence toward death and turns it into a listicle. It’s a listicle that I love, but still pretty irreverent. I feel like this is what Buzzfeed would be if it only focused on disposing of corpses, ghosts, and murder. While there isn’t much I can say about it as a novel (it’s literally a book of listicles), I still really enjoyed my time with this novel and it’s a good one to pick up if you want to read in short sessions.

What do you think? Did I miss one? Do you have better

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