Books and movies that reveal aspects of Death and Dying…


1. Being with Dying, Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, Joan Halifax, 2008. Inspired and practical teachings by this Buddhist teacher and PhD who reflects on her many years of work with the dying. Halifax offers lessons from dying people and caregivers to help us contemplate death without fear and help those who are suffering and transform that suffering into courage.

2. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy, 1st published 1886. Tolstoy creates a short story where the lead character, Ivan, moves slowly towards his death in a state of depression and denial. His family is miserable. As he draws closer to the final hours he has realization after realization as he comes to a final transformation that brings closure and peace.

3. The American Book of Dying, Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain, Richard F. Groves and Henriette Anne Klauser, 2005. This book offers a broad historic overview of the rituals and care of the dying including the current rekindling of the hospice movement. In addition to a historical perspective the book provides nine archetypal stories that offer insight and lessons in caring for the dying.

4. Mortally Wounded, Stories of Soul Pain, Death and Healing, Michael Kearney, M.D., 2007. Dr. Kearney has worked in end of life care for over 30 years in Dublin, London and the U.S. In this book he reflects upon his experiences working with the dying using Greek mythology as a metaphor to the death journey he and his patients have travelled.

5. Last Rites, Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical System, Stephen P. Kiernan, 2006. An objective yet personal account of how patients and families can regain control of the dying process in the technological medical maze. This award-winning journalist offers up both scientific research as well as intimate portraits from all walks of life.

6. The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, 1973. Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1974, Becker tackles the problem of man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality by exploring some tough questions. This is an existential classic. This book is a difficult emotional read. Becker, writing not long before his own death, directly deals with an issue most people wish would just go away. Yet Becker approaches the issue in a manner that makes it hard to not synthesize, ponder and explore further.

7. On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., 1969. One of the most famous psychological studies of the late twentieth century. On Death and Dying grew out of an interdisciplinary seminar on death, originated and conducted by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In On Death and Dying, Dr. Kübler-Ross first introduced and explored the now-famous idea of the five stages of dealing with death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

8. Unplugged, Reclaiming Our Right to Die in America, William H. Colby, 2006. Based on court records, personal interviews and first hand experiences this book chronicles the medical advances that allow us to live longer, healthier lives, but can also make it more complex and difficult to die. This attorney/writer reviews current laws and proposed legislation that impact our ability to make end of life decisions.

9. Dying Well, Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life, Ira Byock, M.D. 1997. This is Dr. Byock’s landmark book telling stories of love and reconciliation in the face of death. It provides a blueprint for families, showing them how to deal with doctors, how to talk to friends and relatives and how to make the end of life as meaningful as the beginning by sharing intimate stories through the eyes of his patients.

10. …And a Time to Die, How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life, Sharon R. Kaufman, 2005. Through 27 narratives Kaufman provides a riveting account of how most people spend their final days. The stories give insight through vivid details and a complex dance that patients, families, physicians, nurses and hospital administrators engage in as death nears. A fascinating and frightening read.

11. The Hour of Our Death: The Classic History of Western Attitudes Toward Death over the Last 1000 Years, Phillipe Aries, 1982. A rich and complex source of material and investigative work. Aries explores everything from churches, religious rituals, and graveyards (with their often macabre headstones and monuments), to wills and testaments, love letters, literature, paintings, diaries, town plans, crime and sanitation reports…even grave robbing. Aries ranges across Europe to Russia on the one hand and to England and America on the other. As he sorts out the tangled mysteries of our accumulated terrors and beliefs, we come to understand the history—indeed the pathology—of our intellectual and psychological tensions in the face of death.

12. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, First complete American translation in 2006. With an introduction by The Dalai Lama this translation took many years to complete the edition faithfully from centuries old work. This document includes one of the most detailed and compelling descriptions of the after-death state in world literature.

13. May I Walk You Home? Joyce Hutchinson, RN, 1999. Touching short stories compiled by a Hospice nurse that is written in a format of brief stories followed by a brief guided meditation, prayer then concludes with a thought for the day. These simple stories and reflections provide comfort for the caregivers of the very ill.

14. A Practical Guide to Death & Dying, John White, 2004. Consciousness researcher John White provides a basic and compassionate look at death and explores the biology, psychology, and metaphysics of one’s own demise. This book will benefit readers who are ill and those who are healthy, readers who care for the dying, and readers who are just plain curious about what lies ahead.

15. Holy Sonnets, (Also known as the Divine Meditations), John Donne, 1663. A series of 19 poems that predominately deal with death and dying. Sonnet 10 is the most quoted piece, Death Be not Proud.

16. It’s OK to Die, Monica Williams-Murphy, M.D. and Kristian Murphy. A ground-breaking book filled with graphic stories straight out of the Emergency Room illustrating how most Americans are completely unprepared for death and dying. In response, the authors have created a unique and comprehensive guide urging EVERYONE to prepare in advance, to assure their own peace and to prevent the suffering of their loved ones. Click here to learn more about “It’s OK to Die™”

17. Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, M.D. uses his father’s powerful story to explore the concept of shared ­decision-making in medicine — the idea that the ideal modern doctor should be neither paternalistic nor informative but rather interpretive, helping patients determine their priorities in life and death and achieve them. He shares lessons he learned from a palliative care doctor who advises him to “ask, tell, ask” during a difficult discussion about a patient’s prognosis: Ask what patients want to hear, tell them and then ask what they understand. A good read for those who are involved with patients with a serious illness.



1. Departures. Japanese movie with English subtitles. 2009 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film. “When his orchestra disbands (cello player), Daigo Kobayashi moves back to his rural hometown. Desperate for work, he secretly takes a job as a “Nokanshi,” a funeral professional who prepares the deceased for burial and the next life. While working with the families of the “departed,” Daigo embarks on a spiritual journey of his own as he finally experiences the joy and wonder of living and dying.

2. Wit. 48-year-old Vivian Bearing is a professor of English literature. She is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her oncologist prescribes various treatments and as she suffers through the various side-effects, she attempts to put everything in perspective.

As she grows increasingly ill, Vivian agrees to undergo more tests and experimental treatments, even though she realizes the doctors treating her, including former student Jason Posner, see her less as someone to save and more as a guinea pig for their treatments. The only person who seems to care for her as a person is Susie Monahan, one of the nurses on the staff. As she nears the end of her life, Vivian regrets her insensitivity and realizes she should have been kinder to more people. In her time of greatest need, she learns that human compassion is of more profound importance than intellectual wit.

3. The Sea Inside. 2004 film based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro, played by Javier Bardem, a Spaniard who’s condemned to life as a quadriplegic. Determined to die with dignity, Sampedro leads a 30-year campaign to win the right to end his life. Spanish Foreign film with sub titles.

4. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 2003 film deals with the essential question that all human beings confront, the uncomfortable truth of dying and death. Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead the film presents life and death as transitions. This presentation of the TBD can open our eyes and heart to an alternative and exciting view of this question of what it means to be a human being. Here we enter a time-warp that visits a mythic culture with ancient truths that are timeless and relevant to us with our highly evolved consciousness.

5. My Life. 1993 film with Michael Keaton playing an advertising executive who learns he is dying as his wife (Nicole Kidman) is pregnant. The film beautifully focuses on his anger over everything: the unfinished business of his life, his family and the probability he’ll never meet his child. Keaton’s character begrudgingly goes to a “holistic” doctor who helps him recognize the corrosiveness of his rage and to let it go along with many other aspects and attachments in his life.

6. It’s My Party. Bittersweet 1996 film stars Eric Roberts as Nick, a gay man with AIDS who learns he’s contracted a terminal brain disease. Nick decides to throw himself a two-day farewell party, where friends and family gather to offer their good-byes — the most touching of which comes from Nick’s former mate, Brandon (Gregory Harrison), who left Nick when he learned he contracted HIV.

7. Husbands. 1970 film written and directed by John Cassavetes. Gus, Harry, and Archie are three husbands with families in suburban New York. All are professional men. As the film begins, they are shaken when their best friend Stuart suddenly dies of a heart attack.

They have difficulty coping with the death, and spend two days hanging out, playing basketball, sleeping in the subways, and drinking, including one lengthy scene at a bar in which they have an impromptu singing contest. Harry goes home, has a vicious argument with his wife, and decides to fly to London. The other two decide to go with him. This film, was described by Time magazine as Cassevetes’ finest work. It portrays and explores a dark, bleak view on how we deal with death and dying in suburban America.

8. Two Weeks. 2006. Sally Field plays the lead in this bittersweet dramatic comedy about four grown siblings returning home to gather around their terminally ill mother (Field’s) for what they think are her final days. But as she lingers, for two weeks, they all come to terms with their grief, anger and love and ultimately their lives.

9. Biutiful. 2011 release with the lead being played again by Javier Bardem who is not an admirable man: he’s a criminal middleman, helping human traffickers and illicit street peddlers in Barcelona. But in the thick of his corrupt and compromised world, he strives to do some modest good for his children. In addition he can commune with the recently dead, and tries to pass on reassurance to the bereaved. He is soon diagnosed with severe cancer and he tries desperately to leave behind something better for his children. A dark and more unsettling depiction of one man’s journey towards death but remains a magnetic force. Spanish speaking with subtitles.

10. The Tree of Life. 2011 newly released film that is cast somewhere between a coming of age film mixed with family drama and the creation of the universe. The film opens up with the death of a son and proceeds with flashbacks and forwards with unbelievable cinematography and questions. The movie leaves you with more questions than answers, but maybe that was the point.