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3BoT Vol. 9: Three Books that Will Change How You Think about Death

Thursday, June 7, 2012

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3BoT Vol. 9: Three Books that Will Change How You Think about Death | Faith Permeating Life

The first Thursday of every month, I share three related book recommendations with you. You are invited to link up at the end of the post with three recommendations of your own! Click here for more info about Three Books on Thursday.

This month's books hit on multiple aspects of a topic people don't often like to talk about: death. They tackle the issues of dying with dignity, why God lets children die, and what happens after death.

These are all nonfiction (no surprise if you know my previous recommendations), but death is one of those big topics that both fiction and nonfiction writers alike have tackled in various ways, so please share your own suggestions in comments of books that changed how you thought about death.

Tuesdays with Morrie#1: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
It's a classic, and for good reason. This story is less about dying than about living well, but the life lessons that Albom learned from Morrie Schwartz during their Tuesdays together were framed by the older man's impending death from ALS/Lou Gehrig's disease. Because this is a degenerative disease, you see how Morrie adapts at each stage as he slowly approaches death. What stayed with me most from this book was how unabashedly Morrie asked for help when he needed it. He didn't try to pretend like he was capable of doing things he wasn't. He didn't try to act like he wasn't going to die soon. He saw no reason not to ask friends to move his pillows or help him pee when he wasn't capable of doing it himself. Yet although he was completely honest about his limitations, he remained determined to live his life as well as he could in the time he had left and impart as many life lessons as he could to those who still had time left to benefit from it.

#2: When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner
This is one of those books I recommend reading just to ponder, even if you don't agree with the author's premises. Although the book is concerned more with the general problem of evil, suffering, and pain in the world than death specifically, Rabbi Kushner's reflections originate from the tragic death of his son at age 14 from an incurable disease. He tackles the question of how God can allow suffering in the world by expressing the idea that God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful; God is either incapable or unwilling to stop bad things from happening. One of the key takeaways for me was the idea of praying to God for strength, patience, peace, etc. rather than specific outcomes. I think about Jesus' focus -- in the Our Father, in Gethsemane -- on God's will. How can we, from our position on Earth, say that it is better for a child to stay living with us than to die and be with God? But we can ask for God's help getting through it no matter what.

#3: Spook by Mary Roach
And now for something completely different... Unlike the somber tone of the other two books here, this is a playful trip through everything afterlife: reincarnation, the weight of the soul, ghosts, mediums, ectoplasm, out-of-body experiences, etc. Roach (whose book Bonk, on the science of sex, I also enjoyed) looks at every aspect of death and the afterlife that's ever been put to a scientific test, and there are far more than you might have imagined. I can almost guarantee you will learn something new from this book, and that whatever side you fall on when it comes to ghosts or the existence of the soul, you will have your preconceptions challenged. Plus, Roach is simply a fantastic writer.

A bonus recommendation: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, which unlike the others is fiction. The main characters are two teenagers with cancer, so they're basically staring death in the face, but it's clear that their lives are no less worthy or important for their potential brevity. Like Tuesdays with Morrie, it's perhaps not so much about death per se as it is about mortality, and how we live our lives given our knowledge of that mortality.

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  1. Ooh interesting suggestions. The last one with the sciencey bits especially appeals to me (obviously)!

    1. No surprise there :) I highly recommend any of Mary Roach's books -- she's great.

  2. Only one book comes to my mind: The Beech Tree by Pearl S. Buck. It's a children's book about a girl whose grandfather comes to live with her family. Her parents find caring for him stressful, but she likes the way he has time to talk with her. On a walk, they see a large, old beech tree with little shoots growing up all around it. Grandfather tells her how the old tree's time is done but its family goes on. I read this book many times beginning when I was about 4 years old, and I think it was a big influence on my feeling that death is not such a big scary problem. I mean, I certainly intend to avoid dying unnecessarily soon, but I feel very calm about what will happen at its proper time.

    I've also read When Bad Things Happen to Good People, when I was in 8th grade. The Unitarian church my family attended in my childhood used a 5th grade curriculum called "Why Do Bad Things Happen?" and I was frustrated that, after a whole year of teaching us what OTHER religions and cultures believe is the answer to this question, they never taught us what WE believe! (This was a flaw of most of the Unitarian programs and the main reason I went searching for a more structured religion.) Three years later my dad volunteered to teach 5th grade church school and wanted to make it less frustrating than my teachers had. He read this book and then passed it on to me. I think it was one of the roots of my understanding that our good God can give us things we don't like as well as things we do, and there is some good and some bad in just about every experience.

    Thanks for the book reviews!

    1. The Beech Tree sounds like a really interesting book. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Oh I loved The Fault in Our Stars! I just read it a month or so ago and I really liked it, although (of course) it made me cry.


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