Print 2021 Review

Grave Affairs: Grief, Mortality, and Death in Literature

Written by Aseel Sahib
Graphic by Navita Wijeratne

This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.

CW: Mentions of death, grief, euthanasia, murder, and slavery.  

If you had the (pleasurable) misfortune of reading The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket as a child, you may be familiar with memento mori: remember you will die. At first glance, this phrase is quite morbid, and appears to state an obvious eventuality that many would prefer to ignore. And yet, for centuries, literature has served as an outlet through which both authors and their faithful readers may safely engage with the idea of mortality. We all know about the morbidity of classic gothic literature, but contemporary novels can also help us face the idea of our own death in a more relatable manner. The next time you’d like to do the same, give these titles a try!

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Imagine a world where humanity has advanced so far that there is no hunger, disease, war, misery, or even death—and you have the basic plot of Scythe by Neal Shusterman. To keep the population under control, a group of humans known as scythes have been tasked with the role of ending life, with limited rules around who and how they kill. Going into (minor) spoilers, the novel poses several interesting ethical dilemmas: should we ever be allowed to decide who dies and how? Given the choice, should people who have experienced long, fulfilling lives be ‘gleaned’—or permanently killed—to save the young? Should people be allowed to opt in for their death? If you’d say yes, then it begs one to question current laws around euthanasia. In the novel, numerous scythes derive great pleasure from their role, and abuse their power by going to busy places and ruthlessly killing everyone in sight. This is obviously abhorrent to the reader—but what does it say about real ethical dilemmas like indiscriminate drone activities in the Middle East, which often miss their intended targets? Besides being a well-written and gripping novel, Scythe makes the reader question the morality in their acceptance of real-world activities surrounding death.  

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Throughout the West, there is generally an assumed taboo around death and dying. However, in some cultures, the living actively respect and remember their dead: during the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), for example, families build altars in cemeteries or their homes, containing their departed loved ones’ favourite food, beverages, photos, and memorabilia. This is done to encourage the soul to visit the living, when the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is a paranormal YA novel that delves into this holiday, as well as the different burial rites that exist within Mexican culture. Throughout the novel, readers follow Yadriel as he deals with the murder of his cousin, proving his gender to his traditional Latinx family, and a ghost whom he accidentally summoned in his aforementioned attempts to prove himself a real brujo. It’s an all-round delightful, wholesome, and insightful read: by remembering the deceased with joy, the pain of losing someone and the stigma around it is lessened.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

It’s natural to grieve upon losing a loved one—but not all the ways in which we cope with loss are considered socially acceptable or ‘normal’. Typically, the process of mourning is considered time-sensitive, and one is expected to ‘get back to real life’ within an unspoken timeframe. Whether these constraints are by-products of the death taboo (grief, after all, is an active reminder of mortality) or because long periods of grief are a symptom of something worse—like Prolonged Grief Disorder—is unclear. However, shelving grief to the recesses of one’s mind is both damaging and unrealistic; unfortunately, this is often how novels portray grief, such as Legend by Maria Lu (the death of the main character’s brother spurs the plot). One novel that not only features grief, but intertwines it with both modern-day Arthurian legend and Southern Black Girl magic, is Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Our main character, Bree, lost her mother in a car accident three months prior to the start of the novel. Instead of only briefly mentioning her loss and relegating it to the background of the plot, her grief is ever-present, even as monsters attack her campus and she stumbles upon a secret Arthurian society that may hold the answers to her mother’s death. Throughout the novel, Bree sees a university counsellor to help work through her suppressed emotions of grief, and is taught to accept her pain, as well as the new person she is becoming—instead of splitting herself into ‘before’ and ‘after’—and to let people get close to her again. Legendborn is refreshing in the way that it makes both the protagonist and the reader actively stand and face death.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Snipes, and William Hutson

Death does not always visit peacefully. Many around the world have lost family to violence, and The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Snipes, and William Hutson is one novel that explores the intergenerational grief and trauma associated with the remembrance of violent deaths within cultures and communities. The Deep focuses on the history of pregnant African slave women who were thrown overboard by slave owners, as well as the concept of merfolk: in this story, unborn babies survive the drowning of their mothers by developing gills and fins to become merfolk—wajinru. However, following the traumatic circumstances of their births and their continued observation of ‘two-leg’ cruelty on land, the wajinru come to the decision that only one of them—the Historian—will remember their origin, while the rest of the community will live in a utopia without any long-term ability to recall the past. This dichotomy highlights the impact of memories. Just as the Historian’s identity is lost in the sea of memories of those who have passed on— they do not know where the history of the wajinru ends and their own identity begins—the lack of memories for the rest of the community means that their identities are superficial and fleeting, devoid of the deeper constructs we typically use to make up our identities (such as shared culture and history). The Deep is a short but impactful read.   

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Processing mortality is a daunting task—but it is important that we learn to digest its impact and grow more comfortable with it as a natural part of life. As this is easier said than done, consuming different forms of media that focus on death and dying is arguably one way of beginning to acquaint ourselves with these eventualities. Reading these novels can make those of us who have death-related thoughts feel less alone, while also opening the eyes of those who may have previously ignored all thoughts concerning the matter. Here is to breaking the taboo of death and bringing comfort to thoughts on mortality.

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