Summertime is synonymous with vacation — a chance to relax, recharge and finally get around to reading all those books there isn’t time for during the year. Even if you can’t get away this summer, make some mental room to think about end-of-life planning and loss with help from these authors whose expertise ranges from medical, social, and deeply personal.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
This unusual but beautifully written memoir tells the story of Helen Macdonald, who, after her beloved father’s death, withdrew from her world, unable to handle the daily grind. As a trained falconer and bird-lover, she decides to raise a goshawk, infamous for being difficult to train, as a project to distract her from her grief. In the process Macdonald learns much about herself and the process of mourning. “What the mind does after losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.”
The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
Doughty is the woman behind the delightful YouTube series “Ask a Mortician.” The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is her first book, a memoir of her entrée into the death industry, as a crematory operator in Los Angeles. Doughty has made it her personal mission (through The Order of the Good Death, an organization she founded) to encourage people to be more comfortable dealing with death and its details, like pre-planning, burial methods, and grieving. Her charm and wit make her memoir a fascinating and touching read on the power of honesty and engagement in pre-planning needs.
The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford
If you’re in the market for a classic read on the funeral industry, look no further than Jessica Mitford’s exposé on the American system, published in 1963. In many ways, this book could be read as a companion to Doughty’s memoir, as it encourages its readers to think pragmatically about the funeral business since Mitford reminds us very strongly that it is still, after all, a business.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Inspired in part by a piece Gawande wrote for The New Yorker on the medical community’s approach to end-of-life care in the United States, Being Mortal takes those hard questions about the prolonging of life, hospice and nursing care, and the option of assisted suicide to task. Gawande, a surgeon and researcher, relays real-life case histories with the precision of a scientist and the compassion of a doctor who deeply cares about his patients’ quality of life.
The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Writer Joan Didion lost her husband John Gregory Dunne to a heart attack in 2003. Only two years later, her daughter Quintana also died suddenly. When Didion gets home from the hospital after Dunne died, she writes, “I remember thinking that I needed to discuss this with John. There was nothing I did not discuss with John.” If these two memoirs relay anything about death and grieving, it's that, in Didion’s experience, the event is always shocking, and there is no such thing as a “normal” bereavement.
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke
Poet Meghan O’Rourke was not prepared for the immensity of her grief after her mother died of cancer at the age of 55. Even for a poet like O’Rourke, words were inadequate. The loss of her mother is not only a devastating for the hole it leaves in O’Rourke’s life, but also for the parts of herself that only her mother understood. “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you got to be when the lost one was alive.”
Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve by Sandra M. Gilbert
When Sandra M. Gilbert’s husband died, she was shocked at what little space there is in our culture for grieving and set about researching customs centered around loss. Gilbert is a professor and critic, and her approach is to investigate grief from a cultural perspective, particularly in a post 9/11 world. The resulting book is a brilliant blend of both personal experience and cultural history.
Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield
Musical journalist Sheffield copes with the death of his wife from a pulmonary embolism by telling their story – from courtship to marriage – through the framework of 15 very important mixtapes from their time together. The oddest part is that the story isn’t depressing. Plus, you’ll learn fascinating music anecdotes along the way, which will have you running to Spotify to check out new tunes after each chapter.
Good Mourning by Elizabeth Meyer
Everplans’ very own Funeral Guru Elizabeth Meyer’s memoir is coming out this August! Liz found herself pursuing a career as a funeral director on Manhattan’s Upper East Side after planning her own father’s funeral. She uses her background in fashion and party planning for her clients, and discovers in the process that she has compassion and empathy to help people in their time of grief. Her sense of humor and bravery in the face of death makes Good Mourning an entertaining and inspirational read. [See more from the Funeral Guru here]