As The Doyenne of Death®, books about end-of-life, estate and funeral planning, and related topics are must-reads. A number of excellent titles were published in 2017. Here are short reviews of seven books that can help you face the inevitable. Click on each book title to get it from Amazon.
Dealing with Doctors, Denial, and Death: A Guide to Living Well with Serious Illness by Aroop Mangalik, MD (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)
Dr. Aroop Mangalik is a retired oncologist and an ethicist. From personal experience, he knows how patients with cancer, their doctors, and their families grapple with – or avoid – the topic of death. His book provides helpful guidance on communication, hope and honesty on the part of all parties. Three chapters address why doctors over-treat: their training and mind-set, pressure from society and the medical establishment, and flaws in the way doctors interact with patients.
One chapter looks at the consequences of patients and families demanding unrealistic treatments. The “nephew from Chicago” phenomenon may be familiar to those who had a loved one die in the hospital. How many of us have been resigned to a loved one’s impending death, only to have a relative fly in from out of town and demand the doctor “do everything” to save the patient?
Mangalik wrote a legacy letter to his son and daughter-in-law, instructing them about his thoughts, desires and wishes regarding his own end-of-life. I was pleased to see he used a variation on my motto as his closing line: “Remember, talking about sex does not make you pregnant and talking about death does not kill you.” His book helps get important medical conversations started, before there’s a trip to the emergency room!
Frank Ostaseski is a leading voice in contemplative end-of-life care. He has accompanied numerous people on the journey to death. As a Buddhist teacher, the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project, and author of The Five Invitations, he helps readers build awareness and acceptance of life and death.
He writes: “Acceptance is not resignation. It is an opening to possibility. And openness is the basis for a skillful response to life.” The Five Invitations are designed to help people find a calm center in the face of the drama illness and death wreak upon families.
The Five Invitations are: Don’t Wait; Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing; Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience; Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things; and Cultivate the Don’t Know Mind. Each invitation has three or four chapters filled with illustrative stories of grief, anger, love, and forgiveness. He helps the reader hone a nonjudgemental presence that helps us live fully and die well.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find The Good Death by Caitlin Doughty (W.W. Norton & Company)
Caitlin Doughty is a funny and irreverent mortician who has made remarkable strides over the past few years to get people to discuss death and dying. Her memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, was a New York Times bestseller. Her “Ask a Mortician” YouTube videos have hundreds of thousands of followers. She’s a leader of the #DeathPositive movement, dedicated to normalizing death discussions and taking actions to plan ahead.
Her newest book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find The Good Death, introduces readers to new and old ways humans embrace mortality. Her travels take her across the U.S. and around the world to document the old, the new and what some people would consider weird.
- The Old: Green burial and home funerals show everything old is new again; the Japanese tradition of kotsuage where the family picks up cremated remains with chopsticks and place them in an urn; and Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico, vibrantly illustrated by the animated film, Coco.
- The New: An LED Buddha light columbarium in Tokyo; modern undertaking in Spain; and the evolving Urban Death Project, pioneering human composting in the U.S.
- The Weird: Check out the chapters on magical skull reverence in Peru and ancestor mummies kept at home in Indonesia. The book is a fascinating death travelogue.
How to Get the Death You Want: A Practical and Moral Guide by John Abraham (Upper Access, Inc.)
John Abraham is an Episcopal priest and a thanatologist. His career includes stints conducting grief therapy, hospice care, death education, and as a leader in the right-to-die movement. He brings a light touch to this serious subject: his photo on the back of the book shows him next to his prized coffin bookcase.
This is a great “how-to” book covering multiple details, including a checklist of practical steps to prepare for death. The book fulfills its title with an upbeat approach. There’s information on how to communicate your thoughts about your own death, prepare advance medical directives, navigate the medical system, and how to achieve what he calls “deliberate life completion.” He writes:
“I believe it is a mistake and an injustice to use the term ‘suicide,’ which has a pejorative connotation with significant stigma attached to it…. When somebody is dying, and simply chooses to avoid those final agonizing stages, I don’t see a tragedy, I see a blessing.”
Spirituality and Hospice Work by Ann M. Callahan (Columbia University Press)
Anna Callahan is a professor at the University of Tennessee whose research emphasizes the role of spirituality in hospice social work. Of all these books from 2017, this one is most academic and highly targeted to social workers. It is well-researched, with many citations supporting her thesis about the spiritual diversity and needs of hospice patients, and how social workers can play a key role.
Hospice social workers are among the key personnel a patient encounters at end-of-life. While spiritual care is traditionally handled by chaplains and clergy, hospice social workers can also help deliver spiritual care as part of an interdisciplinary team. Callahan suggests hospice social workers expand the therapeutic relationship by developing spiritual competence and sensitivity to their patients’ needs.
This book is part of a series on end-of-life care published by Columbia University Press that offer resources for both practitioners and scholars.
What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy by Rabbi Daniel Cohen (Health Communications, Inc.)
Rabbi Daniel Cohen suggests we reverse engineer our lives toward the words that will be spoken about us at our funerals. Rather than wait for a disastrous wake-up call to finally embrace living a life of purpose, he suggests living deliberately, carving out time to review aspirations, goals and progress.
This book is full of stories, wise principles, and “tool box tips” to help become a better person and leave the world a better place. The principles are: Discover Your Elijah Moment; Make Courageous Choices; Seize Meditative Moments; Create Memories; Find Faith; Live Inspired; and Discover Your Renewable Energy. Cohen writes:
“Choosing the path of life spurs us internally to reach for new spiritual heights. With all our emphasis on the health of our bodies, we may be neglecting our souls. Whether a believer or not, we all sense deep inside a yearning for meaning and significance in life. We seek purpose and to make an impact in the world. Our bodies may be whole, but our souls have a hole. Happiness in life stems from finding purpose.” This book is full of good advice, whether you’re Jewish or not.
Wills and Trusts in a Nutshell, 5th Edition by Robert L. Mennell and Sherri L. Burr (West Academic Publishing)
While this is a textbook for college level classes, it can be read by the general reader who wants an overview of basic legal knowledge of Wills and Trusts law. It provides a comprehensive look at estate law: What happens when someone dies intestate (without a will), rights of the spouse and children, what goes into making a valid will, revoking and changing wills, how to create a trust, addressing trust administration problems, and probate administration. This 5th edition updates laws affecting intestate succession, wills, guardianships and trusts.
That’s not to say this is a dull read. It illustrates legal issues with recent celebrity death examples, such as Prince’s estate snafus and the near-simultaneous deaths of the mother/daughter duo Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. As Sherri Burr says in the Preface, “Welcome to the law of sex, greed, and family animosity. Wills and trust cases can often be as entertaining as they are educational.”
Happy reading in 2018!