I Like a Little Death Science in My Fiction

Vanitas by Adam Jacob de Gheyn (Public Domain)

You know it’s almost Halloween when every blog and news outlet on the web starts nattering on about near-death experiences and classic movie monsters. I’m not even going to bother linking to any because, if you’re like me, you were already sick of them when they arrived last October. However, in case you’ve forgotten the previous repetition, I’ll give you the quick and dirty science behind the tropes: NDEs are hallucinations caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide in the brain, and zombies, werewolves and vampires as we know them don’t exist; those myths were probably inspired by medical phenomena actually more interesting than most of the stories people make up about them.

Instead of rehashing the monster mash, I’ve decided to put together a brief resource guide for writers who like a little death science in their fiction. There is some highly readable non-fiction about death out there. Favorites in my library include:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Read them. You will certainly laugh, definitely learn, and seriously consider donating your body to science.

Death’s Acre by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
A surprisingly warm read for non-fiction, especially given the subject matter. You will learn as much about respect for the dead as you will about human decomposition.

Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner by Michael M. Baden with Judith Adler Hennessee
Grittier than the books above, but still insightful. Reading made me want to be a Medical Examiner when I grow up.

If you’re willing to dig past the annual Halloween horde, you can actually find a lot of good death science on the web. Take this recent piece about a new guideline for determining brain death, for example. Just the idea of brain death as a diagnosis is enough to fire up my story engine. Plus, the need for such a guideline should remind us all that death is more of a process than an event.

As I direct your eye toward the following death science videos, please remember that art and science aren’t mutually exclusive. Our anatomy is beautiful.

There’s one video I can’t embed that I think will make everyone laugh and look at their kitchen utensils from a new perspective:

Dr. G, Medical Examiner and the tools of the trade. I love this show.

Death science musical interlude:

Writers remember: You get points for accuracy, and it only takes a little death science to make your Halloween fiction stand out in the horde. Trick it out and treat your readers!

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