Review: Death, an Oral History, by Casey Jarman

Note: I received Death: An Oral History from the publisher for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Death an Oral History

So my favorite thing about Death: An Oral History is the story of its genesis. Casey Jarman noticed that he hadn’t yet lost anyone he couldn’t afford to lose, and it started to cause him anxiety about death. He therefore decided to spend the next few years of his life talking, reading, and thinking extensively about death, with the ultimate goal of producing a collection of interviews with people familiar with death.

This is very very relatable to me. I have learned that when you are afraid of something, it’s either fine to live your life without that thing (like acid trips or the many species of spider that live in Australia) and then you are fine to go on avoiding it, or else it is diminishing/impossible to live your life without that thing (like taking long walks alone at night while a lady or people I love dying or getting a job in publishing and moving to New York without knowing anybody there) and then you have to make a decision about your priorities. I am terrible at not being afraid of things, but I am excellent at triaging. (I am too jittery and on edge to enjoy long walks alone at night, which defeats the purpose they would otherwise be serving. People I love are definitely going to die. I really wanted to work in publishing.)

Jarman interviews a wide range of people who spend their time thinking about death: a retired warden on death row who now opposes the death penalty, a grief counselor, a songwriter whose lyrics deal with the inevitability of death, a hospice volunteer. Each of his interviewees has considered death extensively from a certain angle, and each of them is able to say what they’ve learned about it, what they believe it means, how they believe people can approach it in a healthy way.

As oral histories go, I liked this one a lot. Inevitably, a few of the interviewees rubbed me the wrong way — I have no patience for woo-woo granola bullshit, and I had to quit reading the interview with the psychedelic scientist who’s convinced we could all have peaceful and pleasant deaths if only we dropped a lot of acid at the crucial time.1 Most of them, though, spoke with respect about the dead and the process of dying, and the book made me feel — and I hope made Casey Jarman feel, bless him — that there are people in this world who have the process of death under control and who can see the rest of us through it.

  1. Ugh okay that’s not a fair representation of her position but “psychedelic hospice” is a thing she wants to do and I just cannot with people sometimes.
  • Sarah Says Read

    “woo-woo granola bullshit” LOL

    This might be a good book for me, because I can’t even handle considering the possibility that my cat might die some day, much less actual human loved ones.

    • Christy

      Oh God, I try not to think about the fact that someday I might have to put my cat down. My dad told me a year or so ago a brief description of his experience of holding one of their cats as it was put down, and it has haunted me since.

      • HARD SAME. My friend came visit lately and asked how old my dog Jazz was (she’s seven), and my mother and I both just sagged. We can’t deal with the prospect of losing her, even if we both know it’s a ways off in the future.

  • I also lol’ed at “woo-woo granola bullshit” and ALSO cannot with people sometimes. This sounds super fascinating and even though the granola person is an example of something you didn’t like, it also holds up that wide-ranging interviews notion.

    • Yeah, for sure! And most of the people involved in the death industry in various ways were incredibly interesting and grounded. The psychedelic hospice lady irritated me, but she was an outlier.

  • TheShrinkette

    Ugh I know someone who would dig psychedelic hospices (actually I sadly know more than one someone like this), and I just cannot comprehend it. LOL “woo-woo granola bullshit”. Also how do you find the most interesting books? *scrolls Overdrive for copy*

    • In this case, my pal Alice at Reading Rambo put me onto it! She had received a copy for review and mentioned how attractive the book design was (which is true), so I asked for a copy for myself too. Glad I did!

  • Christy

    I haven’t yet had a big loss in my life, so I feel very untested in that regard, like I have no real relationship with death right now. But I am glad that there are people out there that could be our guides through it. I was just listening on the radio two days ago when they did a story about D.C.s “Death with Dignity” decision (which Congress has to approve to make a law). They interviewed a woman with advanced stage of cancer. She was very clear that she loved and appreciated life and that she wasn’t afraid to die, but she would like to have the option to choose a more peaceful end than to have her last days of life be full of pain. She’s clearly thought a lot about death, with a practicality that amazes me even though she is not the first I’ve heard speak of death like that. It just amazes me every time.

    • I am always glad when people speak about death in practical terms. I feel like our culture does so much work to conceal the realities of death at every stage, and it’s such a disservice to the dying and their loved ones. People are scared to even have conversations about what they want, and it leads to all this unnecessary medical stuff and suffering that didn’t need to happen. Bleh.

  • This sounds like an interesting way to approach a taboo topic. I just wish woo-woo granola people would not give spirituality a bad name. It is possible to be grounded and also visionary — I know some amazing people who are (wish they would get interviewed for a book sometime.)

    • Hahahahaha, I know, I totally agree! I tried not to be snotty about the psychedelic hospice lady, but the way she talked about “guiding” her dying sister to experience the dying process the way she (the interviewee) wanted her to really irritated me. It came off like she was bullying a dying woman into doing things her way, instead of listening closely to what her sister wanted. Maybe that wasn’t the reality, but that was how it sounded to me. :/

      • Ugh, there is nothing worse than a holier-than-thou bully. Still, I’m glad that seemed to be an anomaly in the book as a whole.

  • Ahahaha “woo-woo granola bullshit” 😀

    Alo, yay non-fiction! This sounds like a pretty cool book, love the idea of it and hopefully it helped the author. I’ve been lucky too, not having lost any of my few really important people, so maybe I should read this one.

    • It was interesting! He talked to people who are around death every day, and their perspectives on the practicalities of it and the emotional realities — just all really interesting. A lot of stuff I hadn’t considered before.

  • An interesting way to approach a grim topic, and this sounds like something I must read, because like the author, I have been lucky enough to not lose anyone I can’t afford to lose – yet. But I know the inevitability of it, and so I think this will help me. Thank you for sharing, Jenny.

  • Jeanne

    I know there are better ways to die than the ways my parents died, and their endings were still pretty good because we all talked about what was coming rather than ignoring it. If reading this book gets some conversations started, that would be a good thing.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I wonder if death were more a part of our everyday lives here in the US instead of hidden behind hospital curtains and made so taboo and hush hush whether that would make a big difference in how terrified or not we are of it? I suspect we would all be better off with it out in the open instead of talking in euphemisms and whispers. My parents are approaching old age and I have tried to talk with them about what they want as they age and when they die and they refuse to take it seriously, turn it into a joke and change the subject. Meanwhile, every visit at the in-laws they ask my husband to go through their things and tell then what he wants so they can make sure he gets it when they die.

    The book sounds pretty interesting though the idea of a psychedelic hospice cracks me up. I wouldn’t go in for it, but hey, whatever floats your boat and helps you through.

  • Ooh, this sounds SUPER interesting. I had to deal with death pretty early on and ended up being kind of a morbid child (think Wednesday Addams but with glitter nail polish and rainbow bands on her dorky braces). This kind of thing is right up my alley — thanks for recommending it!

  • It would be interesting hearing everyone’s take on death. The fact that no one really knows makes it fascinating. My dad used to be into books about people who could see ‘beyond’, and they’re fun to read even if you don’t buy into it. I think he finds it comforting to think there’s something to look forward to.

  • Rachel

    This sounds like an interesting read. It’s a little out of my comfort (reading) zone, but I think it would be intriguing to read a variety of people’s thoughts on death. I know everyone has different thoughts on this subject. Thanks for sharing your review!

  • Citizen Reader

    I must get this book. I must also say, however, that death is a lot like childbirth (and I’m sure, a lot of other experiences…) you can try to understand all you want, you can read about it, but until you’re there…
    That said, experiencing deaths of people close to you is part of life. Heartbreaking, but also unifying. Everyone experiences that kind of loss sooner or later.
    Psychedelic hospice. I confess to being intrigued, frankly! I don’t have any drug habits but if I ever develop one I’m totally going to tell people I’m just experiencing “psychedelic hospice.”
    Have you also seen Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s “Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death”? It’s ten years old now but was a great read: http://www.bookslut.com/nonfiction/2006_10_010052.php

  • Alley

    I like this method of dealing with something you’re afraid of, because my normal method is denial. #adult I took a class called The Meaning of Death that was pretty swell and this would have been a great addition to that syllabus.

    Also, NY is pretty swell

  • This does sound like an interesting oral history! I really like when authors present many different perspectives on a single topic, especially one that I personally haven’t yet thought that much about. I think I’d share your feelings about the woo-woo granola stuff though, haha.