Columns > Published on August 22nd, 2016

Ashes To Ashes: 6 Books About Funerals

Funerals are some of the most important events in life, even if they center around death. They're intriguing in the sense that the person of honor is present and yet not; a corpse is human, but also an inanimate object. These authors don't just address the difficult and often taboo subject of human mortality, they also play with it, using wit and skill to shine a light on the dark moments at the end of a life.

1. 'The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley: A Novel' by Jeremy Massey

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley is a black comedy about a funeral director who accidentally kills the brother of a notorious mobster and is then presented the task of attending his body. Massey himself is a third-generation undertaker, and his real life familiarity with the trade is evident in his detailed descriptions of daily life with the dead. 

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2. 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory' by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is the frank, nonfiction memoir of Medieval-studies-major-turned-cremation-assistant, Caitlin Doughty. Doughty, who also hosts a YouTube channel called Ask A Mortician, writes about the everyday challenges of working with dead bodies. It isn't always pretty, sometimes it's downright revolting (imagine having your clothes soaked in melted human fat), but it's a fascinating inside look at the funeral industry told in a wry and very funny voice.

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3. 'The Funeral Dress' by Susan Gregg Gilmore

The Funeral Dress is a novel about the friendship between two seamstresses. The unwed Emmalee struggles against social conventions to complete a final favor for Leona, the woman who sat beside her at the local shirt factory until her sudden death. Some in the small Southern town don't believe unwed, single mother Emmalee should be allowed the right to make such a garment. An examination of the lives and friendships of working-class women from an interesting angle.

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4. 'Annie Freeman's Fabulous Traveling Funeral' by Kris Radish

With a title like that, I had to include this book on this list. Essentially, it looks a bit like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants with a dead person thrown into the mixture instead of pants. When Annie Freeman died, she left a request that five of her closest female acquaintances take her ashes for a drive across the country. 

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5. 'The Funeral Party' by Lyudmila Ulitskaya

“In a sweltering New York City apartment, a group of Russian émigrés gathers round the deathbed of an artist named Alik, a charismatic character beloved by them all, especially the women who take turns nursing him as he fades from this world.” The Funeral Party captures how much can happen in the brief moments at the end of life.

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6. 'The Picador Book of Funeral Poems' Edited by Don Paterson

This collection features poetry about grief, longing, and remembrance, emotions that many of us tend not to think about unless we're in the midst of them. The collection includes works by Walt Whitman, Christina Rossetti, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and other poets.  

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A few honorable mentions include a number of other nonfiction works about the funeral industry, such as The Removers by Andrew Meredith or the classic, The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. Have we made a grave error by leaving anything off this list? Let us know which books we should bury ourselves in next in the comments (sorry).

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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