Cheerful topic, no? But that’s not the main problem of How to Get the Death You Want: A Practical and Moral Guide, which is that it is poorly organized, and little more than a platform for the The Final Exit Network, which advocates for patient-directed death. All well and good, I think, but it does not even begin to offer a solution for the types of death we may fear the most, perhaps, death after years of mental disability that would put us at the total mercy of the medical corps, which in turn needs to obey inflexible laws.
I suppose it’s a good thing to think and talk about how we want to die. But not by reading this book.
Breaking Sad: What to Say After Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up is a compilation of personal stories from people who experienced various losses and who share their stories and their recollections of best and worst comments and help they received afterwards. Some of the “bad” comments are astonishingly insensitive; it would be most charitable to think that people are intimidated by death and blurt out these things without thinking.
What was more interesting to me were the recommendations for what to do and say. There were so many different approaches, reflecting the preferences of the receivers, so that piece of advice #1 is probably just that: adapt to the mourner. And don’t think you have to fill the silence with any words at all. Maybe that’s the hardest part.
A memoir by a young woman (and mother of two) who died of breast cancer may not be the most appealing book to add to your summer reading list — but The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying is so accomplished, so funny (really), and so grounded in reality that you really should read it. Prepare a tissue or ten — her mother is also herself dying, of cancer, during that time — but the general tone is not depressing. What I liked most about the book, aside from her son’s lovely comments and questions, is the way she describes the juxtaposition of the mundane and the profound, the dying and the living, the traumatic and the casual insults of everyday life. It’s a perfect example of the power of showing rather than telling.
Although The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story starts with the moving story of the author’s death, it consists almost exclusively of analyzing other writers’ works about death, which makes the book feel like an exclusive, even exclusionary club if one has not read the texts — or if one cannot remember them (guilty as charged). I would like a little more emotion and a little less intellectualism.
I do remember the author’s excellent Claire of the Sea Light.
The author of Once We Were Sisters is convinced that her sister’s husband murdered her. He most definitely beat her, repeatedly and savagely, but it seems that, had he wanted to kill her, he would have had access to other methods than driving their car into a tree, without having to himself suffer serious injuries. No matter, the story is about her relationship with her sister, forged against complicated parenting from their mother, a dreadful if indulgent education, and poor husband choices for both of them. It’s a wonderful portrait of sisterly love. Somehow it left me rather cold, including the awful abuse, perhaps because many of the bad decisions are based on hanging on to the very comfortable family wealth.
The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains is a scholarly tome on how humanity has treated its dead, focusing mostly on England between the Middle Ages and the 20th century, although it also touches on France and the United States, and occasionally back to Roman antiquity. The author shows how burial customs changed over time and evolved from the churchyard to privately-run cemeteries, always providing abundant, and sometimes over-abundant examples from various archives. He delves into official funerals for important personalities, funeral monuments, the stealing of corpses for dissections, and how armies tried to identify and bury their dead. All that in only 600 pages…
Disaster Falls is the hauntingly-named part of a Utah river where the author’s son drowned during what was supposed to be a fun family rafting adventure. The book recounts the aftermath of the death on himself, his wife, and older son. It’s all very somber and anguished and very beautiful.
And very sad. And, as is often the case with memoirs, it feels quite indiscreet to read it.