Death isn’t a topic that typically goes along with humor. However, there are a number of books that could be categorized as both. In fact, there’s a not insubstantial number of books that use humor to challenge the social conversation around death and funerals. If that seems interesting, here’s some suggestions:
The author of three of my favorite books, and a good starting point, is Caitlin Doughty. A mortician, funeral director, activist and self-proclaimed “funeral industry-rabble rouser,” Doughty also runs a YouTube channel called “Ask a Mortician.” The channel features famous corpses, historical disasters, and mortician stuff, like how embalming works. If you’re hesitant about the topic or if you’re like me and skip to the end to decide whether to read a book, the “Ask a Mortician” YouTube channel provides a similar overview of topics and Doughty’s narrative style without spoiling the content of her books.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory” is a blend of biography and science writing, covering topics ranging from Doughty’s childhood experiences with death, working in a crematory, mortuary schools and a history of the profession, to a brief history of burial around the world and how bodies decompose. The biographical part starts with Doughty’s first job as a crematory operator, hence the title of the book. As one would assume, there’re a lot of stories about corpses and the type of perplexing questions that come with customer service, even when the service in question is turning someone’s grandma into ashes.
The narrative is balanced between all sorts of interesting characters, musings about the future of America’s dead, and detailed explanations of what funeral directors argue about. All of it’s told with plenty of gallows humor, both in Doughty’s narration and the events she recalls, like, getting bored enough to start a personal challenge called “five before five.” You can guess what that refers to, or read to find out. I’d suggest the latter.
If you want something (maybe) slightly more lighthearted, or if you’ve ever wondered if your pets would eat you if you died at home, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” has the answer. Or possible answers, regarding that question specifically. It probably depends on the cat, but if you’re dying to know: Your cat might eat your eyeballs, but they’d be more likely to go for your eyelids or lips first. More details available in chapter one. This book is actually a compilation of children’s questions about death, each answered by Doughty in its own chapter. Other questions include “Do people poop when they die?” and “What would happen to a dead body in space?”
If you’d rather not hear exclusively (or primarily) about corpses, “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death” is more science writing, or even travel writing, than mortuary anecdotes. As the title suggests, it describes death customs and rituals from around the world and through time. Doughty goes into detail about a variety of traditions, but focuses on how the modern American funeral industry and historical practices compare. This includes a history of America’s funeral practices, a socioeconomic timeline of the profession, and the impact of death-related attitudes on society.
Last but not least, we have “Mortuary Confidential,” an anthology of stories told by funeral directors, edited by Todd Harra and Kenneth McKenzie. This one is more solidly in the humor category, as indicated by the subtitle “Undertakers Spill the Dirt.” It has a similar tone to children’s questions, and it’s a great read if you want to know all the ways death might call for duct-tape. Since it’s an anthology, the stories are self-contained, so there isn’t one perspective or style that unifies this book besides topic. The primary appeal of “Mortuary Confidential” (like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) is that reading it feels like people-watching, except you get to hear their thoughts, too.
All of these titles are available as audiobooks. They all feature some level of science writing, and a few include history, but it’s all broken up into sections that have their own focus. This makes them good picks to have on in the background, if that’s your thing. Otherwise, all except “Mortuary Confidential” are available in print as well. You’ll find all of this in the catalog, where you can also scroll down to find read-alikes for any of these titles.
Evren Celik is a library assistant for learning and information services at Manhattan Public Library.