The best books on understanding the fear of death

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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 It is not perfect, parts of it are now outdated, and what Becker says about homosexuality seems at best ignorant and at worst bigoted.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.

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.)