The best books on understanding the fear of death

Referral link notice: I will be paid a commission fee by Rakuten Kobo UK if you click on any of the links below and end up buying the e-book.

1. Ernest Becker – The Denial Of Death

First published in 1973, The Denial Of Death is the modern ur-text in terms of our understanding of the fear of death. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. It is not perfect, parts of it are now outdated, and what Becker says about homosexuality seems at best ignorant and at worst bigoted. I think it is essential reading though in order to get the most out of Escape From Evil (see below).

(It is also possible to electronically borrow The Denial Of Death for free from the Internet Archive.)

2. Ernest Becker – Escape From Evil

[To the best of my knowledge this book is not available as an e-book yet. Here in the UK I bought my paperback copy from Alibris: (NB: this link is not a referral link).]

Escape From Evil was published posthumously in 1975 by Ernest Becker’s widow. Sheldon Solomon famously quit his academic job and worked in construction for a year as he processed what Becker had to say in this book.

It is a more complete book than Denial Of Death. I do not know how completed Becker himself thought it was, although the way he ultimately ducks the question of how to “escape from evil” might be a clue it was unfinished.

It seems to me that chapters one and two of Escape were meant as a summary of Denial. In my opinion, a close reading of Denial really creates the broadest base possible for Escape to build on. Becker is asking what we can do in the face of the things the pressure fear of death causes us to do. In my opinion that question, along with how to handle the climate emergency, are the questions of our age.

(It is also possible to electronically borrow Escape From Evil for free from the Internet Archive.)

3. Irvin D. Yalom – Staring At The Sun

This is the best book I have found so far that offers some tangible ways to experience some relief or consolation from fear of death without having to subscribe to a religious worldview. The first half of the book is the author’s experience as a therapist working through fear of death with some of his clients. The second half of the book is the author’s own advice on what he finds can help make the fear of death less terrifying.

(It is also possible to electronically borrow Staring At The Sun for free from the Internet Archive.)

4. Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski – The Worm At The Core

If The Denial Of Death + Escape From Evil are an important stop on the road to better understanding & living with our mortality and impending death, The Worm At The Core feels like a signpost further along that road. Essentially a record of the authors’ own academic efforts, and those of others, to empirically test whether Becker’s analysis last century was correct. It is the best published record of these efforts that I know of.

(It is also possible to electronically borrow The Worm At The Core for free from the Internet Archive.)

5. Irvin D. Yalom – Existential Psychotherapy

Written in 1980, Existential Psychotherapy is veteran therapist Irvin D. Yalom’s detailed look at how incorporating the challenges of existentialism/fear of death into the therapeutic process can lead to valuable personal growth. The book is one-part guidance to aspiring therapists, one-part what can be done in the face of “four ultimate concerns”: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

Parts of this book are out of date, for example I think our understanding of schizophrenia has progressed since 1980. It’s fair to say that empirical testing of psychotherapeutic methods has also come a long way in the last four decades. And if you are interested in psychotherapy, this will help you get through the parts specifically aimed at practising psychotherapists. But at the same time, Yalom’s many years of experience as a therapist mean his insights and wisdom regarding the four ultimate concerns are still valuable and recommended.

(It is also possible to electronically borrow Existential Psychotherapy for free from the Internet Archive.)