Death is a part of life, but much of modern society has shunned this fact to its great detriment, according to several forthcoming books on religion and spirituality this year. Three authors, with backgrounds in medicine, theology, and philosophy, argue for why facing—and even embracing—one’s mortality can improve daily life and heighten a sense of spirituality.
Books offering a different outlook on death are not new. In 2018, the New York Times reported on a growing “death positivity” movement, which aims to promote the acceptance of human mortality. And the Covid-19 pandemic is sharpening society’s focus on death, according to Michael Maudlin, senior v-p and executive editor at HarperOne. “With the coronavirus, our mortality is now impossible to ignore,” he says. “Even before the pandemic, it was becoming clear to more and more families that we die poorly. Yes, people live longer, but we still put off preparing, which means all end-of-life experiences are done in crisis mode.”
Part of living well means preparing for the end, writes Lydia S. Dugdale, associate professor of medicine and director of the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at Columbia University, in The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom (HarperOne, July). The book, which PW called “illuminating and thought-provoking” in its starred review, examines what the author perceives as the current “death-denying” culture in America and digs into society’s reliance on medical treatments that the author argues prolong suffering and strip dying individuals of their dignity. Inspiration for the book came from a text written during the Black Plague that revolutionized the way medieval Europeans handled death.
“Dugdale thinks we could use a similar revolution today,” says Maudlin, who hopes readers of The Lost Art of Dying start to consider death in a different light. “The end does not have to be a time of panic and fear; previous generations can help us rediscover how to prepare, and we will live better and happier lives as a result,” he says.
From Oxford University Press, The Solace: Finding Value in Death through Gratitude for Life (Nov.) by Joshua Glasgow, a philosophy professor at Sonoma State University in California, encourages readers to find a deeper appreciation for life that extends even to its natural culmination. By doing so, Glasgow writes, death can become comforting and even positive.
Lucy Randall, an editor at OUP, says The Solace represents modern society’s increased openness, transparency, and willingness to talk about challenging topics. Readers, she says, can learn that “death doesn’t stand alone, outside of life, but rather is part of it,” adding, “We couldn’t have life, with all the wonderful things that it contains, without death providing the frame.”
Finally, in The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Brazos, Sept.), researcher and minister J. Todd Billings shares his experiences living with incurable cancer and draws on his knowledge of Scripture. “As strange as it seems, coming to terms with our limits as dying creatures is a life-giving path,” he writes, arguing that considering one’s mortality during daily life is a part of following “the crucified and resurrected Lord.”
Bob Hosack, executive editor at Brazos, says The End of the Christian Life demonstrates how embracing mortality can be a key aspect of Christian discipleship. And, similar to HarperOne’s Maudlin, Hosack notes that the book’s release takes on a “special significance” amid the Covid-19 crisis.
“With daily news reporting of our dystopian days, we are regularly reminded of our human mortality,” Hosack says. “It’s a sobering reminder, as both testaments remind us, that we don’t know the length of our days.”