What happens after you die? Do you wake up in a waiting room, walk into Ted Danson’s office and learn that all your good deeds on earth earned you a spot in an everlasting utopia? Probably not, but this premise of NBC’s The Good Place sets up a thoughtful and hilarious journey through an imagined version of heaven. The brilliance of the show is that it takes a topic—the afterlife—that’s usually so warped by fear and divisive religious rhetoric, but presents it in an approachable, totally charming way. Here are five books that do the same.
If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life? In the first scene of this novel, four siblings in New York City visit an elusive psychic who tells them the exact dates they will die. The novel's four sections follow each of them later in their lives as they react to this information in radically different ways and exposes all the complicated ways our mortality affects our beliefs, our ambitions, and our relationships with the people we love. The unique structure and lovable characters will stay with you.
After a heart attack, Jim Byrd is declared clinically dead. Five minutes later, he wakes up, deeply unsettled by how unremarkable the whole occasion was: no white light, no angels, no "good place" or "bad place" to be found. Could it be that this is all there is on the other side—a never-ending, dreamless sleep? Jim's life goes on, but gets weirder and weirder as he continues to grapple with this question. Through the course of this entertaining and beautifully written novel, we encounter ghosts, holograms, mediums, and a machine that may or may not connect the living to the dead. THE AFTERLIVES is so much fun that you may not even notice your ideas about loss, love, and mortality being challenged with every passing scene.
Mary Roach brings her astute reporting skills and snarky sense of humor to the topic of death in SPOOK. She admits right away that she's attempting a scientific deep dive into a phenomenon that's virtually impossible to prove: "This is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith. It's a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question." But even so, Roach's stories of scientists, mediums, philosophers, and others all trying to prove (or disprove) the existence of an afterlife make for a charming and thought-provoking book.
PLAYING DEAD is a brand-new take on "escapist" reading. Elizabeth Greenwood, facing six figures of student loan debt, investigates what it would take to escape once and for all by faking her own death. This eye-opening read is full of bizarre stories of "pseudocide" gone awry, consultants who specialize in making people disappear, and conspiracy theorists who swear that Michael Jackson is still alive. By investigating this phenomenon, Greenwood shines a light on some of those weird, death-related thoughts that lurk in the dark corners of our minds (who'd show up at my funeral?) with wit and creativity, just like The Good Place does.
Like Elizabeth Greenwood, Caitlin Doughty takes her morbid curiosity to the next level when in her midtwenties she starts working at a crematorium. SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES details her journey through the little-known world of the death industry, and it's completely fascinating—a must read for anyone who's ever wondered how many dead bodies you could fit in a Dodge van. But Doughty isn't satisfied with a simple show-and-tell of her unusual profession: she makes a strong case for discussing death openly and honestly, for not letting our fear of the end of our lives so deeply and adversely affect our time living them.
Why would anyone choose to become a mortician? Caitlin Doughty explains in her hands-on, candid, often-humorous romp through her employment in a crematorium. If you’ve wondered what happens when a body is cremated, Caitlin will set you straight, and also give you myriad macabre conversation-starters for your next cocktail party.