Books to help you explore death, dying and the end of life

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Death Positive Libraries harness the power of books to spark conversations about death and dying. In this blog, we share their story — and some of our favourite books.

You can disappear into another world through the pages of a book. You can see life from a different perspective or find your own experience reflected back at you in someone else’s words.

Whether you are looking for information, connection or understanding, there’s likely to be a book that can help.

Libraries are vital because they connect people to books. But more than that, they provide public spaces in which we can connect with each other. And sometimes even to talk about the things that matter most to us.

How Death Positive Libraries began

For several years, Redbridge libraries, spearheaded by Anita Luby, have been engaging visitors in conversations about death and dying. When Judith Robinson, and her colleagues in Kirklees library service, saw what they were doing, they were inspired to follow suit.

“We thought this was such an interesting concept, and decided that we’d dip our toe in during Dying Matters Week 2019 and try something ourselves,” says Judith.

“We set up an area in Huddersfield public library, invited our local hospice, representatives from a bereavement charity and laid on cups of tea and comfy chairs. We displayed information and had creative activities for people to take part in. Some staff were sceptical at first, but they were struck by how many people wanted to stop and talk. People were so open.”

Fiona Hill and her team at Newcastle libraries were also on board. This led to a partnership between Newcastle, Kirklees and Redbridge libraries — and funding from the Wellcome Trust and Carnegie Trust — to become Death Positive Libraries and develop these ideas further.

Libraries are safe and trusted spaces

The idea at the heart of the project is very simple: “the role of the library as a safe, trusted, public space in bringing people together to share stories and explore thoughts, ideas and attitudes to death, dying and the end of life.”

Then lockdown came.

Libraries had to close their doors and limit their services. But this didn’t stop the growth of Death Positive Libraries. The project quickly moved online, reaching more than 5,000 people in their own homes through a series of events including author Q&As, film screenings, promoting an e-book list and hosting virtual book clubs.

Now library spaces are re-opening, and Death Positive Libraries continue to flourish.

“The funders promote a strong research element,” explains Judith. “So we have been working with leading academics in the Death Studies field, and of course we will be continuing to promote books, stories and trusted information. We also hope to provide guidelines for other public libraries who want to run similar activities.”

At Poppy’s, the work of Death Positive Libraries has inspired us to share some of our personal favourite books about death, dying and grief.

Hannah, funeral director

‘From Here to Eternity’ by Caitlin Doughty is a fascinating look at how different cultures honour their dead, both at their funerals and beyond. What I found amazing about this book is that what is considered respectful by one culture, can often be viewed as heinous by another. There is a huge diversity and range of beliefs and practices, but all tied together by a desire to remember and honour, and the need for ritual and tradition.”

Poppy, founder and CEO

“For me, it’s ‘Undying’ by Michel Faber. This book contains love poetry from Michel to his wife Bridget after she died. These are some of my favourite lines:

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,

is mention, to whoever cares to listen,

that a woman once existed, who was kind

and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget

how the world was altered, beyond recognition,

when we met.”

Jack, marketing manager

Dr Richard Shepherd is a forensic pathologist. I really liked that in his book, ‘Unnatural Causes’, he truly sees each of the people that he performs a post-mortem on as entirely unique. He remembers that they are still a person, not just a number or a body. He's also extremely honest about the impact his work has on his mental health and his relationships with those close to him. A great read.”

Sarah, content editor

“My choice is ‘Wild' by Cheryl Strayed. When the author's mother dies, she spirals into self-destructive behaviour to cope with the intensity of her grief. A spur-of-the-moment decision finds her hiking 1,000 miles along the Pacific Coast. The journey often dangerous, sometimes funny and always full of beauty gives her the space and time to grieve, reflect, remember her mother and rediscover herself.”

Natalie, funeral director

“I found the first half of ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande was frustrating to read, as such a lot of it is about care of the elderly. But persevere! The second half will have you weeping.”

But, of course, these are just a start.

There are so many more good books available, whatever your age, situation or interest. For more recommendations for further reading, check out the Death Positive Libraries book list.

We’d also love to hear about the books which have helped, interested or moved you. Let us know your recommendations by commenting on this blog on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

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