From beginner-friendly introductions to classic philosophy books on death, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on the topic of death. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best philosophy books on death in no particular order.
Death – Shelly Kagan
Publisher description: There is one thing we can be sure of: we are all going to die. But once we accept that fact, the questions begin. In this thought-provoking book, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan examines the myriad questions that arise when we confront the meaning of mortality. Do we have reason to believe in the existence of immortal souls? Or should we accept an account according to which people are just material objects, nothing more? Can we make sense of the idea of surviving the death of one’s body? If I won’t exist after I die, can death truly be bad for me? Would immortality be desirable? Is fear of death appropriate? Is suicide ever justified? How should I live in the face of death?
Written in an informal and conversational style, this stimulating and provocative book challenges many widely held views about death, as it invites the reader to take a fresh look at one of the central features of the human condition—the fact that we will die.
Philosophy and Death: Introductory Readings – S. Brennan & R. J. Stainton
Philosophical reflection on death dates back to ancient times, but death remains a most profound and puzzling topic. Samantha Brennan and Robert Stainton have assembled a compelling selection of core readings from the philosophical literature on death. The views of ancient writers such as Plato, Epicurus, and Lucretius are set alongside the work of contemporary figures such as Thomas Nagel, John Perry, and Judith Jarvis Thomson.
Brennan and Stainton divide the anthology into three parts. Part I considers questions about the nature of death and our knowledge of it. What does it mean to be dead? Is it possible to survive death? Is the end of life a mystery? Part II asks how we should view death. What (if anything) is so bad about dying? If death is nothingness, should it be feared or regretted? Part III examines ethical questions related to killing, particularly abortion, euthanasia and suicide. Is killing ever permissible? Under what conditions or circumstances?
The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death – B. Bradley, F. Feldman, & J. Johansson
Publisher description: Death has long been a pre-occupation of philosophers, and this is especially so today. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death collects 21 newly commissioned essays that cover current philosophical thinking of death-related topics across the entire range of the discipline. These include metaphysical topics–such as the nature of death, the possibility of an afterlife, the nature of persons, and how our thinking about time affects what we think about death–as well as axiological topics, such as whether death is bad for its victim, what makes it bad to die, what attitude it is fitting to take towards death, the possibility of posthumous harm, and the desirability of immortality. The contributors also explore the views of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato and Epicurus on topics related to the philosophy of death, and questions in normative ethics, such as what makes killing wrong when it is wrong, and whether it is wrong to kill fetuses, non-human animals, combatants in war, and convicted murderers.
Phaedo – Plato
Publisher description: The Phaedo is acknowledged to be one of Plato’s masterpieces, showing him both as a philosopher and as a dramatist at the height of his powers. For its moving account of the execution of Socrates, the Phaedo ranks among the supreme literary achievements of antiquity. It is also a document crucial to the understanding of many ideas deeply ingrained in western culture, and provides one of the best introductions to Plato’s thought. This new edition is eminently suitable for readers new to Plato, offering a readable translation which is accessible without the aid of a commentary and assumes no prior knowledge of the ancient Greek world or language.
Letter to Menoeceus – Epicurus
Publisher description: Epicureanism is commonly regarded as the refined satisfaction of physical desires. As a philosophy, however, it also denoted the striving after an independent state of mind and body, imperturbability, and reliance on sensory data as the true basis of knowledge.
Epicurus (ca. 341-271 B.C.) founded one of the most famous and influential philosophical schools of antiquity. In these remains of his vast output of scientific and ethical writings, we can trace Epicurus’ views on atomism, physical sensation, duty, morality, the soul, and the nature of the gods.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
Publisher description: Hailed as one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his death so much as a passing thought. But one day death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise he is brought face to face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?
This short novel was the artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy’s life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina during which he wrote not a word of fiction. A thoroughly absorbing and, at times, terrifying glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Death – Yale University
- Perspectives on Death and Dying – Queensborough Community College
- Philosophy of death and Dying – David Faraci
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Philosophy Books on the Meaning of Life
- The Best Books on Existentialism
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- Find the best philosophy books on a wide variety of topics with this collection of over 120 philosophy reading lists.
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.