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Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Bring Out Your Dead!

This post originally appeared on Book Riot. In “Buy, Borrow, Bypass,” Book Riot contributors give brief reviews of their recent reads and advise whether you should buy, borrow, or bypass them.

I’ve always had a bit of a dark streak in my reading life. I love a good true crime story and often pick up memoirs with a bit of illness or tragedy. Recently, I’ve been on a kick for books about life in the business of death. I’m curious how our funeral industry operates and, even more, curious about how we can better prepare for the decisions that come at the end of our lives. With that in mind, here are three memoirs by women with some unique experiences living with death.

smoke gets in your eyes by caitlin doughtySmoke Gets In Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematory) by Caitlin Doughty (September 14 from W.W. Norton)

In her early 20s, Caitlin Doughty, a medieval history major fascinated by death, took a job at a family owned mortuary in California. Although she had no experience operating a crematory, Doughty’s odd enthusiasm for the work (and for learning about how people deal with death) makes for a really great memoir. Doughty peppers the book with historical facts about death and early ‘90s pop culture references (Pogs! Puppy Surprise!) that maintain a sense of dark, irreverent humor throughout the story. But behind the humor (and lets be real, entirely disgusting descriptions about what can happen when a body is burned up), Doughty makes a strong case for changing our relationship with the dead. The funeral industry, Doughty argues, has encouraged our fear of death and dying by sanitizing what happens to our bodies after we die and shifting the care of our dead from families to professionals. This book made me laugh, cringe and think.

Verdict: Buy, if you have a strong stomach and irreverent sense of humor. Otherwise, bypass.

knocking on heavens door by katy butler coverKnocking on Heaven’s Door by Katy Butler

In 2010, Katy Butler wrote a wonderful, devastating piece for the New York Times Magazine called “What Broke My Father’s Heart.” In the essay, Butler shares the story of her father’s life after a severe stroke. At one point, in order to complete a relatively simple surgery, doctors fitted her father with a pacemaker. This pacemaker kept his heart beating strongly while his mind and the rest of his body began to fail. In this memoir, Butler extends out the threads of argument in her essay, making a persuasive case that medicine’s culture of over-intervention is taking away our choice to die with dignity and increasing the overall cost of treatment. The book is well-researched and approaches these issues fairly, but Butler also doesn’t hide her simmering outrage and the way the medical establishment let her father down at the end of his life. It’s an incredible piece of work.

Verdict: Read “What Broke My Father’s Heart.” If the essay moves you, buy this book. If not, borrow or bypass.

nine years under by sheri bookerNine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home by Sheri Booker

At 15, Sheri Booker talked her way into a part-time job at a funeral home West Baltimore. For nine years, Booker learned lessons from from the business’ caring, temperamental owner, Al, and his charming son, Brandon. Along the way, Booker learned to steel her heart to the tragedy of caring for the dead – many of them young, black men killed as a result of gang violence in the city. Like Doughty, Booker also has a sense of dark humor about life in the business of death, but parts of this memoir fell a little flat for me. I wish that Booker had dug a little deeper into the stories of the people she worked with, especially Al, who turned his life from being a street hustler to funeral director. The memoir is good, but was just a little short of being great.

Verdict: Borrow

There many other great books on this subject I wish I could have included like We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down by Rachael Hanel, Stiff by Mary Roach, and The Restless Sleep by Stacy Horn. Commenters on Book Riot also suggested The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford, The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, and The Corpse: A History by Christine Quigley. I’d love to get even more recommendations in the comments!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading July 9, 2014, 6:28 am

    I love that you have the same weird, morbid reading sense that I do, because I’ve been interested in all of these. I can’t wait to get to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Along the same lines, I totally have my eyes on Severed by Frances Larson, because who doesn’t love a good history of decapitation?

    • Kim July 13, 2014, 11:22 am

      A history of decapitation!? I am so in on that one.

  • Heather @ Capricious Reader July 9, 2014, 8:02 am

    These all sound fascinating, but I’m really interested in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. From what you say, I have a feeling I share some of the ideas the author presents.

  • kayo July 9, 2014, 8:39 am

    I just heard about a new book coming out called The Removers. By Andrew Meredith. I have not read the book, but this may be something you would like. Its on my to-read list. I have read most of the books you mentioned. Somehow I am drawn to them also. Though you have to drag me to a real funeral…just creeps me out!

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes July 9, 2014, 10:21 am

    I have a copy of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and I really can’t wait to read it. The other two sound fascinating as well!

  • Carrie July 9, 2014, 10:26 am

    Oh my gosh! I’ve never met anyone else who’s familiar with Thomas Lynch. I think he’s superb. (Way better than Keillor, imho.) I met Lynch once years ago, and he’s the most gracious man. I’d also recommend his other work, too, esp. Bodies in Motion and at Rest and Still Life in Milford (poetry).

    • Kim July 13, 2014, 11:23 am

      I’m really curious about that one — I haven’t read it, but the description someone offered sounded good.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge July 9, 2014, 1:42 pm

    OMG, my wishlist is blowing up right now. I inherited my mom’s insistent NEED TO KNOW about things like this.

    • Kim July 13, 2014, 11:24 am

      That’s part of the fascination, isn’t it? Just needing to have a sense of how all of this works. I think it’s part of processing grief.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) July 9, 2014, 2:10 pm

    Hm, I’m not sure any of those are for me.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End July 9, 2014, 3:16 pm

    I was just adding a book on this topic to my TBR list earlier today! The University of Georgia Press (I think) has a new book out called American Afterlife, which is about all the rituals and customs surrounding death in this country. It looks really cool, as do the books you’ve highlighted here!

    • Kim July 13, 2014, 11:24 am

      Oooo, that one sounds good too. Thanks for the tip!

  • Alice July 10, 2014, 2:57 am

    This is a great post idea; there are plenty of books I would recommend people read, but not purchase.

    I have the weakest stomach, so other than the 90s cultural references (I loved Pogs!) I think I would probably feel faint a few times. Nevertheless, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes does sound intriguing.

    • Kim July 13, 2014, 11:25 am

      The editors over at Book Riot are smart about features. This one was fun to do, even if it did involve a bit of morbid reading.

  • Wendy @ Wensend July 13, 2014, 11:53 am

    I love morbid reads. I participated in your giveaway, but I really want to read more of these kind of books