Six of the Best … Books about death

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Death is one of the certainties of life. Everyone and everything will die, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it. While in the real world, the two constants seem to be death and taxes, in fiction it’s death and love. Every book I think I’ve ever read contains at least one death and one person in love. Today, however, with Halloween on the horizon, we’ll just be focusing on one of those.

No one knows what happens when we die. I like to imagine that whatever comes next is some kind of library. Because the answer is unknown, however, it has given writers of all stripes free reign to go wild with their imaginations. Throughout history, death has been talked and thought about, and it’s perhaps one of the main reasons we ended up with religion, as a lot of it seems to centre around what happens to us after we die. We are lucky as a society now that we rarely brush up against death. There are people dedicated to dealing with it, life expectancy is high, and hospitals and doctors are on hand when things begin to reach there end. Things were not always this way, though. In earlier times, death rates were much higher, and infant mortality was just a tragic but commonplace fact of life. People were used to seeing and dealing with dead bodies. One would guess that our ancestors were not as squeamish as many of us today may be, but we can’t really know for sure.

Death as a process is fascinating, and some scientists have even asked why it evolved in the first place. Is there an evolutionary reason for growing old and dying? Certainly there must be, or it wouldn’t have happened. Most people assume that older generations die off to allow there to be food and resources for the upcoming ones, and that seems to make the most sense to me. If nothing ever died, the world would be pretty crowded by now.

In 2011, a piece in Psychology Today even suggested that death is just an illusion. Maybe it is. This could easily just be a phase that we pass through between others we don’t remember and ones that we’ve yet to experience. Maybe we all keep going round and round. I suppose one day we will find out. For now, though, I think it is important to talk about death. Maybe not in casual conversation on the bus, but it is important not to fear it, to be able to come to terms with its existence, and to help comfort those who are dealing with it. It would be heartless to say we should just “get over it” and I don’t agree that’s the right way to go about things. Literature, as ever, comes to the rescue. By seeing something in fiction, it gives us a lens to view reality in a new way. We can understand death by how our favourite fictional characters react to it.

Let’s press on to six of the best books where death takes centre stage.

Scythe

Hundreds of years from now, humanity has managed to eradicate death. There is no more illness or injury, and the only way to die is to be gleaned by a scythe – someone who has been trained in the art of killing. You never quite know when your time will come, and there is no arguing with a scythe. The only rule is that no one would wants to be one can ever achieve the role. Citra and Rowan are two young people who both are against this normality and find the idea of murder abhorrent, but when they are both selected as apprentices to Scythe Faraday, they have no choice but to enter a new world and have their whole lives turned upside down.

A story that removes death from the world is not unique, but there was something particularly chilling and fascinating about this one. Neal Shusterman imbues the novel with great detail and a lot of lore that really makes the world, ironically, come alive. It’s a great worldbuilding exercise, and despite the potentially dark subject matter, there are some really fun moments. Without death, crime has vastly decreased as everyone lives so long as to be on a similar footing in society, and religion has faded because there’s no discussions on the afterlife anymore. The introduction of tonal cults – sects that worship sounds and smells – is one that feels very unique and is an example of what can be achieved in storytelling when you take away something as fundamental as death.

R.I.P.

There seems to be a taboo in Western society that says death is not something that we should consider funny. Granted, in certain circumstances I agree, but I’m also someone who believes there is comedy to be found in pretty much anything and that context is key. Nigel Williams is a funny writer, and he tackles death with just as many laughs in R.I.P. as he does in any of his other books. George wakes up one morning feeling absolutely fine, with the slight exception of the fact he’s dead. His mother, Jessica, has also died in the house that day, on the eve of her ninety-ninth birthday. The house is full of guests, and when it is revealed to the police that Jessica was worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen the latest will, it appears that both she and George may have been murdered, and everyone else in the family is now a suspect. Bittersweet and working as a genuine murder mystery despite being narrated by one of the victims, it’s a great look at ghosts and how our consciousness may carry on once our body shuts down for good.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

It’s rare that a novel opens with a death, but Mitch Albom manages it here. Eddie is eighty-three when, while trying to save a small girl’s life, he loses his own. He finds himself in the afterlife, where he meets five people, one at a time, each of whom had a huge impact on his life. Between them, they will help Eddie explore and explain his time on Earth, and only when he’s met them all will he be able to move on to whatever comes next. I’ve read it twice, and just bought the long-awaited sequel as well, and think it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Albom has a stunning way with words, and conjures up great images from his precision and expertise. It is a book that reminds us that while we are the protagonist in our own story, everyone else has one too, and we’re just side characters in those. All stories are interconnected and nothing happens in a vacuum.

Sum

Of course, Mitch Albom’s version of the afterlife is only one possibility. In David Eagleman’s astonishingly beautiful Sum, he presents forty possible versions of the afterlife, each as beguiling, entrancing and magical as each other. In one, we find that power over the universe was handed over to a committee quite early on in the process. In another, we don’t die until we are entirely forgotten on Earth, which means the likes of Shakespeare are still there unable to move on for good. In one you meet all the different versions of yourself, and in yet one more, you can only spend time with people you knew on Earth. Some are fun, such as becoming the actors in the dreams of the living, and some are desperately weird, such as every atom in the universe being made up of the exact same quark that is attempting to be everything and everyone, and will eventually just wind itself down. It is, without question, one of my favourite books of all time and for such a slim novel contains so many lessons and ways of looking at the world.

Mort

I’m not particularly a Discworld fan, but I didn’t think I could let a post like this pass without mentioning Mort. Terry Pratchett’s character of Death is, despite everything I feel about the series, one of the greatest inventions in literary history. Dedicated to his job and quietly fascinated by the humans he has to deal with on a daily basis, the only time I can ever really bring myself to the world is when he’s in a starring role.

The title character of Mort is unsuited for the family business, and instead gets an apprenticeship under Death himself, leaning to take souls and deal in the business of death. When Mort fails to collect the soul of Princess Keli but instead kills her assassin, he sets in motion a parallel universe that will eventually collapse and see her dead anyway. Death, meanwhile, is taking a well-earned break while his apprentice holds down the fort and is learning what it’s like to be human. Mort must seek advice from Albert, Death’s assistant and former wizard, in protecting fate and seeing the universe restored to normality. Like all Discworld novels, it’s packed with jokes, silliness and some of the most phenomenally intricate world building ever attempted. While it’s the fourth book in the series, even Pratchett himself said this is the first one he actually liked.

Duck, Death and the Tulip

Death to many is scary, and children in particular may not understand the finality of the process. Duck, Death and the Tulip is a German book by Wolf Erlbruch and has been translated into many languages. In it, a duck meets the character of Death, who has been following her all her life. The two strike up a friendship and discuss life, death and a potential afterlife. Although Death seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to directly give the duck any answers, the conversations seem to bring about a certain peace, leading to a very moving ending where the title’s tulip comes into play. It’s short and sweet and has utterly adorable illustrations. It’s one of those books that is great for children and adults alike. I didn’t discover it until I was in my mid-twenties, but it charmed me immediately. With a touch of humour, the book provides a great deal of comfort and is a vital tool for all ages.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“Sum” by David Eagleman (2009)

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“In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the evens reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

There are several questions that have long stood unanswered throughout the history of human. Is there a God? Do we have souls? What is it about Joey Essex that people seem to find tolerable? But one of the biggest is, of course, the question of what happens after we die. Some say we go to heaven or hell, others say we reincarnate, and yet more still say that it’s game over and we get to feed the worms. David Eagleman has other ideas

In his collection of forty stories, he shows us forty alternatives for what the afterlife could have in store of us. Each one is uniquely brilliant, and quite often they’re beautiful, too. In one, you aren’t allowed to die for good until no one on Earth remembers you. In another, only the sinners survived, doomed to suffer eternity with God. In a third, God is a bacterium and doesn’t even know humans exist. Elsewhere, we are a cancer in god’s body; another one has Mary Shelley sat on a throne, cared for by angels, and one story gives us an afterlife where we sit in front of a bank of television screens and watch the world we left behind.

There’s one where you’re stuck with multiple versions of yourself, one for every age you were, and another where the multiple yous all did things differently to you, leading you to be stuck between those who achieved more and those who wasted their lives, hating both equally. Sometimes we weren’t created by gods, but by Programmers, or Technicians, or Cartographers. Each one has enormous scope for just a few short pages of text, and you can get lost wondering which, if any of them, you wouldn’t mind happening.

Sometimes they teach us more about who we were on Earth. For example, the one where you live with more and less successful versions of yourself reminds you that if this one is real, the harder you try and better you do in life, the fewer smug, successful versions of yourself you have to compete with. Another one has you live in an afterlife populated only by the people you knew from your time on Earth, stating that after a while you tire of not being able to meet new people, yet no one having any sympathy for you, because “this is precisely what you chose when you were alive”.

The title story “Sum”, is especially wonderful, as it says our life replays out of order, with similar events grouped together. Here, you “sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes”, spend “fifteen months looking for lost items”, “two weeks wondering what happens when you die”, “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator”, and “one year reading books”, which is definitely far less than I’d get. The moment that gets me though is when he mentions the time you spend experiencing pure joy – fourteen minutes. Compared to the fifteen hours writing our signatures and six days clipping our nails, it’s heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are funny, some deep, but all are thought-provoking in the extreme and Eagleman gets you thinking about what may be out there in the great beyond.

As for me? Well, I’m not religious and I think probably when you die, there’s nothing waiting for us out there. But I like to imagine that, maybe, you end up in a library of some kind, with all the books ever published there. And because I’m a sucker for lists and statistics, I’d like to imagine that your private library contains a book that lists all the statistics that could ever have mattered, from how many ice creams you ate and how much time you spent asleep, to how many books you read, and how many people fell in love with you on public transport.

That’d do for me.