Death and Bereavement rank high on the list of topics that we as a nation avoid talking about. Our research suggests that only 21% have spoken with a loved about their death and how they would like to be remembered, with 32% never even considering arrangements for their own funerals. Despite this, death plays a large role in literature and storytelling, often becoming key to character development. Literature has given us some of the most open and honest conversations about death and this blog explores eight examples of this.
The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones is the unique example in this blog due to the fact that the protagonist of the novel, Susie Salmon, is dead; she’s watching the living from the other side. Susie is able to watch her family members deal with her death and the author explores how each member of the Salmon family grieves in different ways. At the end of the book, Susie draws solace from the way in which those who have mourned her have been brought together and helped each other through the tragedy, displayed here in this quote from the final chapter.
“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections-sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent-that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.”
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle book uses animal fables to talk about death as a universal experience. Mowgli asks the animals, "What’s the most feared thing in the jungle? The animal that steps aside for no one is the most feared. One said it was the elephant. Another said it was the lion. Finally, the wise old owl exclaims, 'The most feared thing in the jungle is death. It steps aside for no one.'”
Kipling openly discusses the cycle of life. Mowgli does not allow this fear to stop his adventures, death is inevitable and it should not be ignored, rather it should push us to take time to really enjoy our lives and those we hold dear.
Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
In E. B. White’s Charlotte’s web, we see the eponymous Charlotte understands her own mortality and uses this as her motivation in life. Charlotte enjoys her time on earth helping others and creating new life by laying her eggs, but does not fail to take time to soak up her environment, which becomes apparent when she speaks with Wilbur shortly before her death.
“All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days…”
Charlotte shows both wisdom, knowing she will soon die, but a feeling of satisfaction that she was able to live her short life experiencing a world she loved.
The old English epic poem describes the death of a warrior. Beowulf saves his tribe by killing a marauding dragon but is himself killed by its venom. He has a hero’s funeral in Anglo Saxon tradition and his body is burnt in view of the sea. Beowulf gives us insight into ancient philosophy on death and a glimpse into a society where death is not a taboo. The poem depicts other warriors bent over with grief. It also shows the process of the funeral as a cathartic one. Beowulf seems at peace and because of the tokens of wealth he carries is still part of society.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Little women is based on Louisa May Alcott’s personal experience of death. Her sister Lizzie Alcott, died of scarlet fever when she was just twenty-three and it is thought she inspired the character of Beth, who is kind and selfless. She contracts the devastating disease when she goes to care for a local family. As Beth gets weaker, she shows a readiness to leave. The sisterhood depicted in Little women is particularly authentic, their bond strong and unique because of their very different personalities. In this way, the author’s depiction of family grief is genuine as they each deal with Beth’s death in very different ways.
Lord of the Rings, JR Tolkien
Lord of the Rings, JR Tolkien’s fantasy epic, contains some of the most beautiful words on death in literature. In The Return of the King, Pippin tells Gandalf about his fear of the end as they are attacked by Orcs. The wise wizard calms Pippin, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
This moment is very profound as it shows the differing ideas of the two characters. Pippin has seen multiple deaths throughout their journey. They have mourned friends and slain enemies, yet despite this, he still shows discomfort in coming to terms with his own mortality. Gandalf, on the other hand, has already died and been resurrected, he suggests that beyond life there is something far greater.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë’s most well-known work, Jane Eyre is the story of a young orphan woman growing up in a small northern town in the early 1800s. Death plays a huge part in the novel and Jane has many preconceptions about death, fear of the unknown and an affinity to supernatural ideas. During the story, Jane is sent to Lowood School where she meets Helen Burns, an older student that Jane quickly admires. The school is notorious for students becoming ill and dying, and this is a fate Helen cannot escape. Jane sits with Helen late one night and the two discuss death and how they perceive it. Helen comforts Jane’s fears, she tells of her religious belief and how it has allowed her to come to terms with the fact she will soon pass away.
The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis is known for using religious imagery throughout his texts to explore grand themes. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the lion represents Jesus Christ, an idea explored explicitly by the sacrifice and subsequent resurrection of the character in the second book in the series. Throughout the book series, the Pevensie children are forced to mature quickly inside of the magical realm as they witness the fall out of a civil war. In The Last Battle, a horrific train accident kills most of the protagonists. They are then transported to another fantasy realm where their memories live on forever. If we look past the clear heaven allegory at this moment, it tells us that to live our lives fighting on the side of good, the impact we make in life will linger long after we have died.
Whilst all these books use death as a thematic device and we are exploring them in terms of opening up conversations around the topic, there are a wide variety of factual books that cover death and bereavement.
If you are bereaved and looking for support, here is a list of recommended titles by Cruse bereavement care.