Death's call and our response

Even in the secular imagination, dying has become a vocation.

Of the making of books there is no end, but with books about death there is a waxing and waning. Right now, two books about death stand astride the New York Times best-seller list: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Between them, they’ve been on the list almost 100 weeks.

Back in the early 1960s, when Gloria Steinem was in her twenties, she tried to interest publishers in something she called The Death Book, a compendium of quotes and stories. There were no takers. The times were a changin’ in those days, and the focus was on youth. Now they’re a changin’ again, and the interest in death and aging is reaching a crescendo. Aging feminist Betty Friedan led the way. Nora Ephron, Jane Fonda, and Steinem herself have also published books about aging and death.

“Mortality is hot,” said a recent reviewer in the Los Angeles Times. Books about death span many categories. Books have preserved the dying testimonies of Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchins, John Updike, and Jane Kenyon. Notable literary memoirs about the death of loved ones include those by Joan Didion, Donald Hall, and Calvin Trillin. Other books explore particular issues surrounding death, such as The Good Death, by Ann Neumann, and The Undertaking, by Thomas Lynch.