The day after you received my last newsletter, I lost a close family member.

After I got the news, I sat with other relatives for hours – especially my grandma, singing hymns and holding her hand. According to Mrs. K., as everyone calls my grandmother, should have passed on years before I was even born. In light of this – and the fact that she herself says regularly that she is ready to die – my steadily increasing fear of losing her seems extremely unreasonable. At 28, I don’t want to imagine a life without my 87-year-old grandma. She laughs when I tell her this.

Death is probably the most personal event in anyone’s life. Unlike birth, which is a shared experience for the mother and baby, sometimes for multiples like twins or quintuplets, there is no natural way to orchestrate a shared death. No matter how much we love someone – we cannot naturally share in their death. Nor would many of us want to.

As many of us have an anticipatory fear of death that comes from our knowledge that we are needed. My grandmother’s lack of anticipatory fear probably comes from knowing she has done well in caring for her family and contributing to her society. My own fear of her death comes from having lost too many people while I still needed them.

Mrs. K. and I have grown quite close since my mother’s passing. She shares my iron will and sense of adventure, and she thoroughly enjoys swapping travel stories. My grandma jokes often that the only continent she hasn’t tried to set foot on is Antarctica. Every time I visit, she asks, “So where last? Or where next?” I regale her with anecdotes, laughing about cultural oddities that she insists haven’t changed in the thirty-odd years since her own visits to

A signboard saying ‘Welcome to Philadelphia’.

I don’t tell her about things she might not have experienced, such as the endless struggle to obtain visas which have become prohibitively expensive in the decades since she stopped regularly traveling, or the times when I’ve been ‘randomly’ detained at airports. I consider it prudent to skip topics like the difficulties of traveling the world on or the privilege inherent in being able to overcome the difficulties of such an underprivileged passport. With her, I want only lightness; I prefer to save the thorny conversations for those with whom I can reasonably hope to spend many, many more years.

The Other Shelf book club

I wasn’t quite sure what I expected. What I got, however, was an abundance of recommendations; scores of intriguing, exciting, even surprising contributions. Eighty-four books had made the list at my last count, with several recommended more than once. From them all, I selected Jason De León’s ‘ ’.

For the next few weeks, we’ll be reading ‘The Land of Open Graves’ because it powerfully captures an idea I’ve been turning over in my mind: death as a deterrent, as a tool to regulate human behaviour, and a confirmation that certain lives – certain human beings – have little value.

‘The Land of Open Graves’ “focuses specifically on the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. [De León’s] main argument is that the desert is…‘a killing machine’ which is part of the [United States] government’s ‘Prevention through Deterrence’ program [which pushes people] to the incredibly hostile terrain of the Sonoran Desert. To illustrate the implications of this strategy, between January 2000 and September 2014, 2,771 bodies were found in this desert. And this figure includes only those who have been recovered; the actual number of dead is unknown.”

I realise that the book addresses a heavy subject; I hope some of you will be able to join me regardless. In the meantime, Mrs. K. and I will continue to comfort each other by discussing happy things such as where I should travel next, or whether it was a sensible idea to get my current manicure.

A cropped living room scene in which two dark-skinned women are holding hands. One of them, wearing a maroon textured skirt, is resting both of her legs on a dark blue ottoman. A black book and a white telephone are also placed on the ottoman.

Reading recommendations

Below is the full list of all the books recommended so far for the ‘Death and Dying’ segment of The Other Shelf. The items in bold are the recommendations or contributions I was intrigued by, and those in bold italics intrigued me the most.

  1. The Yellow World - Albert Espinosa
  2. Ways of Dying - Zakes Mda 
  3. Being Mortal - Atul Gawande (Recommended 6 times)
  4. The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion (Recommended 3 times)
  5. The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe
  6. Life and Death - Forrest Church
  7. Daytripper - Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (a graphic novel)
  8. The Five Invitations - Frank Ostaseski
  9. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
  10. The Great Divorce - C.S. Lewis
  11. Resisting Elegy - Joel Peckham
  12. Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life - Gillian Rose
  13. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives - David Eagleman (Recommended twice) 
  14. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying - Sogyal Rimpoche (Recommended twice)
  15. The Famished Road - Ben Okri 
  16. Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar
  17. Two Part Invention - Madeline L’Engle 
  18. Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner 
  19. The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri 
  20. Disobedience - Naomi Alderman
  21. The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri
  22. The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy (Recommended twice)
  23. A Better Death: Conversations About the Art of Living and Dying well - Dr Ranjana Srivastava
  24. Die Wise - Stephen Jenkinson (Recommended twice)
  25. The Earthsea Cycle - Ursula K. Le Guin (a series)
  26. The Art of Dying Well - Katy Butler
  27. House of God - Samuel Shem 
  28. The Death Of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son - Pat Conroy
  29. Lonely City - Olivia Laing
  30. The Denial of Death - Ernest Becker
  31. When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back - Naja Marie Aidt
  32. Unnatural Causes - R. Shephard MD
  33. Words at the Threshold - Lisa Smartt
  34. Death and Dying - Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D
  35. The Undertaking - Thomas Lynch
  36. The Ultimate Journey - Stanislav Grof
  37. The Rules Do Not Apply - Ariel Levy
  38. Four Minus Three - Barbara Pachl-Eberhart
  39. Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter (Recommended 3 times)
  40. Knocking on Heaven’s Door - Katy Butler
  41. Too Soon To Say Goodbye - Art Buchwald
  42. Last Rights - Stephen Kiernan 
  43. When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi (Recommended 8 times) 
  44. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor
  45. Immortality - Milan Kundera
  46. The Land of Open Graves - Jason De León
  47. The Death Of Forever: A New Future For Human Consciousness - Darryl Reanney
  48. Mortality - Christopher Hitchens
  49. Buddhism Without Beliefs - Stephen Batchelor (only one chapter on death)
  50. A Widow’s Story - Joyce Carol Oates
  51. Mort - Terry Pratchett
  52. Reaper Man - Terry Pratchett (Recommended twice)
  53. Evidence of the Afterlife - Jeffrey Long M.D
  54. A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman 
  55. A Grief Observed - C.S. Lewis
  56. The Book Thief - Marcus Zusak
  57. Clock Without Hands - Carson McCullers
  58. The Brothers Lionheart - Astrid Lindgren
  59. Mind of the Cells - Satprem
  60. Adventures of consciousness - Satprem
  61. The Outsiders - S.E. Hinton
  62. The Five People You Meet in Heaven - Mitch Albom
  63. Tuesdays with Morrie - Mitch Albom
  64. Minerva’s Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage - Carol Matthews
  65. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby (Recommended 3 times)
  66. Essays After Eighty - Donald Hall
  67. ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death and Dignity’ - Studs Terkel
  68. No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life - Thich Nhat Hanh
  69. Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders
  70. The Dark Flood Rises - Margaret Drabble
  71. Mystic’s Musings - Sadhguru
  72. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death-Cleaning - Margareta Magnusson 
  73. Pedro Paramo - Juan Rulfo
  74. Nothing to Be Frightened Of - Julian Barnes
  75. Dancing on the Grave. Encounters with Death - Nigel Barley
  76. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death - Caitlin Doughty
  77. Somewhere Towards the End - Diana Athill
  78. Charlotte’s Web - E.B. White
  79. The Loved One - Evelyn Waugh
  80. The Boy Who Saw True - Cyril Scott
  81. Dying To Be Me - Anita Moorjani 
  82. Swing Low - Miriam Toews 
  83. Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To - David A. Sinclair, Ph.D. with Matthew D. LaPlante
  84. The Forest of Souls - Carla Banks