As Benjamin Franklin once said, there are only two certainties in life: death, and taxes. Non-fiction books about taxes put me to sleep (if you know of an interesting one, please share!), but non-fiction books about death and dying can be truly fascinating. Here are nine non-fiction books about death and dying that will open your mind.

9 Non-Fiction Books About Death And Dying - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes - Caitlin Doughty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Death is one of the last big taboos, but Caitlin Doughty doesn’t think it should be. After working as a mortician and uncovering the secrets of the crematorium, she took to answering the public’s weird and confronting questions about death. In service of that mission, she wrote Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, a memoir of gallows humour about what happens to our bodies after death. Yes, it makes for a morbid spectacle and you might squirm a bit if you have a sensitive stomach, but you should stick with it for its honest insights into the way our fear of death and dying shapes our lives.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Can you remember a time you almost died? Maggie O’Farrell can – in fact, she can remember 17 unique brushes with death (her own, and her children’s). In I Am, I Am, I Am, she writes about each of them in turn, from encounters with would-be murderers to childhood illnesses to plummeting planes to teenage misadventure. As she says in this collection of essays about death and dying, “I know all too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.” It makes for a fascinating combination disability and travel memoir, with an admittedly morbid theme. Read my full review of I Am, I Am, I Am here.

Stiff by Mary Roach

Stiff - Mary Roach - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stiff is a non-fiction book about “the notable achievements of the dead”. Not in the sense of famous dead presidents and poets, not even in the sense of zombies – but in the sense of literal dead bodies. It turns out a lot of scientific knowledge is only possible thanks to the contributions of human cadavers, harvested and experimented on after death. It takes a certain kind of mind to even come up with that as a book topic, and have the stomach to research and write it, but Mary Roach clearly has a taste for the macabre, and a talent for making it palatable to the general readership. Read my full review of Stiff here.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Shortly after finding his footing in the medical profession, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. This terminal diagnosis, and the transition from doctor to patient, is the subject of his memoir When Breath Becomes Air. It’s every bit as devastating as the most well-written tragedy, but every word of it is true. It offers rare and overwhelmingly honest insight into what it means to grapple with your own mortality, and how life looks to the dying.

Mortals by Rachel E Menzies & Ross Menzies

Mortals - Rachel E Menzies and Ross G Menzies - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Conversations around the Menzies dinner table must circle the topics of death and dying more frequently than most of us would consider ‘normal’, as the father-daughter team – Rachel and Ross Menzies – wrote Mortals together. This book is about the evidence they’ve gathered that our collective subconscious fear of death has shaped our societies and behaviours over the course of human history. It’s a surprisingly positive and affirming read – less Grim Reaper, more life is made richer by the fact that it ends. Read my full review of Mortals here.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Joan Didion

Inevitably, those who die leave the living behind. The Year Of Magical Thinking is a memoir from one of the most brilliant narrative non-fiction writers of a generation, Joan Didion. She writes in her iconic, elegant prose about the sudden death of her husband, while her daughter is hospitalised in an induced coma for septic shock. Didion struggles to make sense of the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness … about marriage and children and memory … about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself,” in what has become one of the must-read non-fiction books about death and dying.

The Gap by Benjamin Gilmour

The Gap - Benjamin Gilmour - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Next time you see a tragedy on the news – particularly a suicide that has left a community reeling – spare a thought for the paramedics and other first-responders who not only have to witness it first-hand, but have to manage the situation as best they can. The Gap is Benjamin Gilmour’s memoir about working as a paramedic based near Sydney’s most notorious suicide spot, an ocean cliff facing the Tasman Sea. It’s a shocking and eye-opening account of the toll that being the knight in shining armour, doing battle with death each day, can take. Read my full review of The Gap here.

CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie

CSI Told You Lies - Meshel Laurie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Why would anyone choose to do forensic pathology work, to be the last doctor of the dead? Why are they so under-appreciated as crucial links in the chain of justice? What does their work actually involve? Meshel Laurie tells us in CSI Told You Lies. This non-fiction book is named for the CSI Effect, the unrealistic expectations the general public have of forensic pathology based on that TV show and others like it. Laurie offers us the truth to try and counteract that false perception. This one is a must-read for Murderinos who love to peek behind the curtain in the search for justice for the dead. Read my full review of CSI Told You Lies here.

The Love That Remains by Susan Francis

The Love That Remains - Susan Francis - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The story that unfolds in The Love That Remains is not the one that you’d expect. You might think that it’s a love story, where Francis finds the love of her life in the search for her biological family and heritage. Instead, after death, Francis discovers new truths that challenge everything she thought she knew about the man she married. She’s forced to confront uncomfortable questions: how well can we ever really know a person? Where are love’s bounds? Should we seek out our past to find peace, or focus on the present? Read my full review of The Love That Remains here.