06 October 2014

Reading On Topic: Death and Dying

Reading on Topic at Beth Fish ReadsMaybe it's the colder weather or maybe it's all the Halloween decorations that are popping up in stores and around the neighborhood, but this week my mind has taken a morbid turn.

Today's Reading: On Topic is focused on death and dying. Each of today's featured books offers a different view of death in America; one is young adult fiction and the others give us the unvarnished truth of what it's like to make death the focus of one's everyday life. I finish with two older but highly recommended books and a heads-up on another coming out early next year.

The Secrets of Lily Graves by Sarah StrohmeyerLet's look at the fiction first. Sarah Strohmeyer's The Secrets of Lily Graves is a murder mystery with a twist. Lily isn't your ordinary black-dressing teenager; she lives in a funeral home run by her mom, grandmother, and aunt. This woman-only family may deal with cold bodies, but they're warm-hearted and have each other's backs. When the most popular girl in school is found dead after having had an argument (and cat fight) with Lily over a boy, you can imagine who the prime suspects are. Can Lily figure out the truth before she or the boy in question end up in jail? This light mystery offers a glimpse inside a family-owned funeral home and is great way to kick off your Halloween reading. (HarperTeen; ISBN: 9780062259608; May 2014)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin DoughtyIn Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Caitlin Doughty shares not only her journey from medieval history scholar to licensed mortician but her own coming to terms with death. It's well known that Americans don't do death, and Doughty believes this attitude has had profound effects on us as individuals and on our society as a whole. With humor and great respect (and some very vivid details), she explores the rituals of death around the world and through history to offer us a way past our own fear. She notes that most of us hide from death and wonders about the current trend of trying to stay alive as long as possible, even when the quality of life is poor. Quick to realize that "Your relationship to mortality is your own," she nonetheless questions the way we (don't) care for our elderly, especially those without monetary resources. Lots to cringe at (death isn't always pretty) and lots to think about. (Norton; ISBN: 9780393240238; September 2014)

Working Stiff by Judy MelinekWhen Judy Melinek gave up surgery for pathology, she immersed herself in one of the most intense fields available to her. In Working Stiff, she relates her first two years of on-the-job training as a New York City medical examiner--a stint that began just weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the city. In her twenty-four months in the city, Melinek learned the extremes of death, from large-scale disasters to everyday crimes and accidents. But being a medical examiner is much more than microscopes and autopsies, it also involves talking with grieving families and being involved with the legal issues surrounding death. This memoir isn't your Hollywood version of the profession but covers the real-life daily business of investigating violent death, waiting for lab reports, making meticulous observations, and honoring the victims by learning their story. The book ends with an account of the overwhelming job of sorting out evidence from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. (Scribner; ISBN: 9781476727257; August 2014)

If you just can't get enough true stories of what happens after we die, here are three bonus recommendations.

The American Way of Death, Stiff, The Undertaker's Daughter

The classic is Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. I read the original version sometime in the 1980s, but shortly before she died, Mitford revised her work, which is the edition shown here. I remember being riveted by this well-researched expose of our country's funeral business. (Vintage; ISBN: 9780679771869; 2000). I read Mary Roach's Stiff soon after it was published. As someone who used to analyze skeletons from archaeological sites, I was fascinated with this examination of what happens to our bodies once we die. (Norton; ISBN: 9780393050936; 2003). I don't know much about Kate Mayfield's The Undertaker's Daughter except what I read from the publisher's summary. Mayfield's father was a white undertaker in a small Kentucky town during the heart of the civil rights movement. She writes about how living in a funeral home meant being privy to town secrets and witnessing people at their most vulnerable. I'm looking forward to this. (Gallery Books; ISBN: 9781476757285; January 2015)


rhapsodyinbooks 10/6/14, 8:27 AM  

The bit about 9/11 must be pretty intense! And well, death books - at least two by Jonathan Tropper!

Vasilly 10/6/14, 9:11 AM  

I feel the same way as Doughty when it comes to Americans and death. I even wrote a paper on it once. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is going on my tbr list. Have you ever read The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch? Lynch writes about his life and trade as an undertaker. The man writes like a poet.

Trisha 10/6/14, 10:31 AM  

The only one up there I've read is Stiff - which I loved loved loved. I definitely will be picking up a few more. I'm often in a morbid state of mind.

Beth Hoffman 10/6/14, 11:02 AM  

I've always had a bit of a fascination with forensics and medical examiners (and archeology, too). Working Stiff and The Undertaker's Daughter are going on my list right now!

Heather 10/6/14, 6:45 PM  

I'm reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and it's, well, eye-opening. My ideas on what I want to happen to my body after I die are definitely being affirmed. Definitely adding Working Stiff to my TBR.

Stiff was grossly fantastic. I love Mary Roach.

Anonymous,  10/6/14, 7:35 PM  

My niece wants to be a coroner when she grows up, so I'm going to pass this list of titles on to her.

chrisa511 10/6/14, 10:24 PM  

Love these recs, especially around this time of the year ;) My reading tends to take a turn for the morbid around October too :p I loved Stiff! Roach hasn't published a bad book yet.

Daryl 10/7/14, 11:34 AM  

definitely apropos for the season .. thanks

Florinda 10/7/14, 6:07 PM  

I've seen a few good mentions of WORKING STIFF--I need to get that one into TBR. I'm rather drawn to medical memoirs.

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