Clint Eastwood's Hereafter and this week's Doctor Who crossover both served up poignant meditations on death. But fantastic stories often explore the darkest frontier of them all: Here are 12 other great stories to help you to cope with mortality.
As Ray Bradbury writes in Fahrenheit 451:
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away.
So here are a dozen stories that might help you come to grips with the mystery that nobody can solve fully.
Arguably the greatest television episode about death ever, the episode where Buffy's mom dies is stark and uncompromising in forcing us to face the loss Buffy is going through. I've had friends watch this episode to cope with the real-life deaths of their mothers or other loved ones. With no music playing in the episode, there's nothing to take you away from the reality of what's happened, and peripheral characters like Tara (who talks about the death of her own mother) and Anya (who doesn't know how to behave, or what it all means) help to illuminate the huge gaping hole in Buffy's life. And then Anya says:
I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's- There's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore. It's stupid. It's mortal and stupid. And-and Xander's crying and not talking, and-and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she'll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.
This novel, which was also a short story, takes place on an alien world where grieving is much, much more important than it is among humans. Grieving for dead relatives is a major undertaking, and people trace their lines of ancestors and grieve for them. We follow a particular poet and famous griever known as the Gray Wanderer — and in the short story version, we see the Gray Wanderer through the eyes of her young apprentice, who then has the task of grieving for the Gray Wanderer after she dies, by creating Tarot-like Cards of Grief. Leading to this beautiful passage:
I was silent while I worked, and it may be that it was my silence that first called the mourners in, for if I had any reputation at all as a young griever, it was not for silence. But if it was the silence that called them in, it was the cards of grief that brought them back.
It took a week of days and sleepless nights before I was done with the painting of them. And then I slept for another week, hardly knowing who I was or what I was or where I was sleeping. My hands were so stained with paint that it was months before they were clean again. The clothes I had worn for that week I burned. I do not think I ever truly recovered my health. But I brought her a line of grievers as had never been seen before, long solemn rows of mourners; young and old, men as well as women. Even the starfarers came, borne in by curiosity I am sure, but started to weep with the rest. And each time the cards are seen, another griever is added to her line. Oh, the Gray Wanderer is an immortal for sure.
I love the line, "I do not think I ever truly recovered my health." Because mourning is a form of illness, from which you don't quite get well.
Death is the greatest mystery to be unraveled in Le Guin's amazing Earthsea books. As Elizabeth Cummins points out in her book Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, the first book begins with this poem:
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.
In his youth, the arrogant young wizard Ged tries to contact a dead spirit, and unleashes a nameless, fearsome creature on the world. And when Ged has finally reached maturity, he must sacrifice all of his magic in order to stop another wizard, Cob, who has opened a breach between the land of the living and the land of the dead so he can live forever. But it's really in the final Earthsea book, The Other Wind, that we really confront the necessity and meaning of death. It turns out that the afterlife that Ged saw in a previous book was created artificially by wizards, and it's keeping souls from the cycle of death and rebirth — and the dead aren't happy about this idea. Nor are the dragons, whose land was taken to create the land of the dead. Setting the dead free, sending them away forever, turns out to be the hardest quest of them all — but it's totally necessary. (There are some other great examples of death in fantasy in this essay.) Earthsea cover art by Gary Lippincott.
You could probably populate an entire list with Terry Pratchett's musings on death. (Or just quotes from Death, WHO TALKS LIKE THIS.) But the Tiffany Aching books spend considerable time philosophizing on birth, life, death and the role and meaning of witches. Wee Free Men, the first book, is driven both emotionally and plot-wise by death. Nine-year-old Tiffany Aching is drawn to becoming a witch partly because of the death of a local elderly woman who was thought to be a witch and partly because of her memories of her grandmother, a sort of wise woman who died two years before. After the death of a local pictsie leader (one of the Wee Free Men of the title) Tiffany's land is left unguarded, and the Queen of the Fairies steals Tiffany's little brother. As Tiffany rescues her brother, she remembers the lessons from Granny Aching.
As Tiffany processes her memories of Granny Aching, she encounters many of those moments that make grief so difficult: did Tiffany say the right thing? Did she hurt Granny's feelings? Why couldn't Granny have stayed and taught her more? And Tiffany's processing of her grief is complicated by the beliefs of her newfound allies, the Wee Free Men (or Nac Mac Feegles), believe they are all dead and living in heaven. They believe if they are killed they are reborn back in a less perfect world.
Though the death of Granny Aching (and the deaths of other characters) continues to be present in the rest of the later books, Tiffany comes to understand death. She accepts it as part of life and is able to remember the good things about her grandmother without obsessing about mistakes she may have made before Granny Aching's death.
This book may have won a Quill Award in general fiction, but don't let that fool you. It's full of grim reapers, hellhounds, reanimated squirrel corpses and appearances by the Morrigan. It's also a soulful and deep look at the death of loved ones, how to ease their passing, and the grief that accompanies it.
When Charlie Asher's wife dies suddenly after giving birth to their daughter, he begins to see things. Objects that glow red, and that he inexplicably feels he must collect. It turns out these objects are holding pieces of human souls that must be protected from the forces of evil. Also, his daughter seems to have obtained a pair of hellhounds, Mohammad and Alvin, as pets. And whenever she says "Kitty!" something dies.
And while it's a wacky, funny Christopher Moore book, it's not all collecting things and trying to keep a toddler from killing. Charlie's mother dies after a protracted illness and Charlie's scenes with her, his sister and the hospice worker are spectacular, and apparently based on much of Christopher Moore's own experiences. Moore also wonderfully captures the feelings of grief, like in this passage, "There's a fine edge to new grief, it severs nerves, disconnects reality – there's mercy in a sharp blade. Only with time, as the edge wears, does the real ache begin."
A somewhat new-agey book from the point of view of the dead Susie Salmon, Sebold's fantastical story rises above the maudlin tear-jerking and shock value of a young teen's rape and murder, with lovely prose and deep wells of empathy for both the living and the dead.
Most heart breaking are the sections from the point of view of the dead girl's young brother, "He was beginning to understand, you would be treated special and then something horrible would be told to you." Sebold's tale of how life goes on and on is summed up when another character tells Susie: "When the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things."
The book that gave us all the stoic, and somehow soothing, mantra "So it goes" also provides this wonderful, alien, way of looking at death:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this book is that this calm view of death is coupled with a fervent anti-war message.
If you were looking for a new age narrative guide to the afterlife, look no further than horror writer Richard Matheson's novel about Chris Neilsen's afterlife trip to find his wife. After Chris dies in a car crash, his wife Ann cannot handle her grief and commits suicide. This leads the dead Chris to travel into a "lower realm" to save his wife. Ann's private hell is basically the suburbs, and Chris moves in next door to convince her that she is dead. Hell begins to eat at Chris until he almost succumbs, but finally Ann recognizes him. Ann is reincarnated and Chris requests to be reincarnated as well, so they can continue to be together. The book ends with a "message of hope." Which is played up in the Robin Williams movie version.
Matheson described What Dreams May Come as "the most important (read effective) book I've written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death – the finest tribute any writer could receive." Which is interesting, coming from the guy who made a number of readers terrified of death after reading I Am Legend.
In this short story, aliens peacefully arrive on Earth looking for the one thing they can never have: death. Because the aliens reproduce via mitosis each contains the memories of their predecessors. To them, human death is a miracle. One human, the elderly Mr. Crane, tries to convince the aliens that death is ugly and not worth fetishizing ("I'm about to die, and there's nothing great about it") but no matter what he says, they persist in seeing death as beautiful. The aliens insist that humans' "lives are built around death, glorifying it. Postponing it as long as possible, to be sure. But glorifying it. In the earliest literature, the death of the hero is the moment of greatest climax." Finally, Crane visits the aliens right as he's about to die, to show them how ugly death is — but they find it more beautiful than ever.
A coalition of aliens land on Earth with the news they have discovered God and one alien chooses a cancer-ridden Canadian paleontologist to join them on their pilgrimage. God, of course, is not some guy with a white beard, but a vast interstellar being that survived the big bang.
Thomas Jericho is the rare protagonist who is already dying and spends a great deal of time reflecting on his mortality and the effects it may have on his wife and young son. Deciding not to spend his last months on Earth, Thomas is frozen and travels at near light speeds to encounter God. As Thomas approaches his death some 450 light years from Earth, he contemplates the possible futures (or deaths) of humanity that may already happened. He has this conversation with Hollus, an alien:
"I don't fear death," I lied. "I just don't want it to come so soon." A pause. "It still surprises me that you haven't conquered death." I wasn't fishing; really, I wasn't.
"More human thinking," said Hollus. "Death as an opponent."
I should show him The Seventh Seal — either that, or Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey.
Adults all know that everything alive will die. But we spend our days in a certain amount of denial. Denial about our own deaths and also about the deaths of those around us. Leave it to Ted Chiang to crack open the shell of denial, lay bare the heartbreak of existence and include alien linguistics in a few short pages. The story of a woman who gains clairvoyance as she learns the language of an alien race that sees time very differently than we do, "The Story of Your Life" is a brilliant emotional story about parental love, grief — and how even with the foreknowledge of death, all we can do is live.
Neil Gaiman's goth-girl personification of Death got not one but two of her own graphic novels. But like so many things, the best way to look at Death is out of the corner of your eye. These two stories approach death sideways — and through they are only 12 issues apart they can be seen as bookends of Death's story. In "The Sound of Her Wings" Death tries to argue Dream out of his depression. It is not her arguments, but merely their trip on her rounds that brings Dream solace.
In the second story Death encounters Urania Blackwell, a metamorph given her powers by the Egyptian sun god who had been a super hero. But now Urania's powers have isolated her, condemned her to a life of paranoid hellish seclusion as her grip on her identity and reality slips away. Here Death points out both her universality and her inevitability. This reassurance that Death will be there (as well as a hint Death gives Urania) allows her to return her metamorph powers to Ra and finally let go and die blissfully.
In these stories we see Death in her positive aspect as a natural and inevitable part of life and as release. It's hard to pick just one quote from both stories, so here's one from each:
"I find myself wondering about humanity. Their attitude to my sister's gift is so strange. Why do they fear the sunless lands? It is as natural to die as it is to be born. But they fear her. Dread her. Feebly they attempt to placate her. They do not love her.
Many thousands of years ago I heard a song in a dream, a mortal song that celebrated her gift. I still remember it. That forgotten poet understood her gifts....
I walk by her side and the darkness lifts from my soul. I walk with her, and I hear the gentle beating of mighty wings." — Dream on his sister Death, "The Sound of Her Wings"
"Anyway: I'm not blessed or merciful. I'm just me. I've got a job to do and I do it. Listen: even as we're talking, I'm there for old and young, innocent and guilty, those who die together and those who die alone. I'm in cars and boats and planes, in hospitals and forests and abattoirs. For some folks death is a release and for others death is an abomination, a terrible thing. But in the end, I'm there for all of them…. When the first living thing existed, I was there, waiting. When the last living thing dies, my job is finished. I'll put the chairs on tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave." — Death, "Façade"