Death: 10 Macabre and Fascinating Books

I embarked on a mission to create a simple list of “weird” books that would look great (and possibly frighten guests) on your coffee table. Instead I accidentally assembled a rather profound exploration of humanity’s most primal anxiety: death.

As far as anyone can tell, no one has ever actually lived forever, be it physically or spiritually. However, that does not end our tireless efforts to keep death at bay, or the eternal struggle to accept our seemingly inescapable fates.

These books delve into the science of immortality and the veneration of death, a macabre look at the dark side that exists in the desperate pursuit of life.


Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris
Author Paul Koudounaris uncovers the bizarre history of Europe’s exquisitely jeweled catacomb saints, remains thought to be of early Christian martyrs unearthed in the labyrinthine tombs discovered beneath Rome in 1578. After the Protestant Reformation lead to the destruction of holy relics, the bones were reassembled, decorated lavishly and put on display.

Get Heavenly Bodies right here.

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy
Walter Potter was a Victorian taxidermist who crafted whimsical scenes with kittens, birds and other critters from the English countryside. For years his collection drew visitors from all over the world, until it was auctioned in 2003 and scattered. This book may be the only way the collection will ever be seen together again.

Get Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy right here.

Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife

Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife by Greg Taylor of The Daily Grail
I have long been a follower of Greg Taylor’s work over at The Daily Grail. In his new book, he explores the history of research into the survival of human consciousness, from the beliefs of Victorian spiritualists to cutting-edge scientific studies.

Stop worrying now by grabbing your copy of the book right here.

Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses book by Bess Lovejoy
Sometimes death is only the beginning. Author Bess Lovejoy crafted a fascinating book tracing the true adventures of historical celebrities, or at least pieces of them, after they met their various fates.

Get Rest in Pieces right here.

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy

Still Life Adventures in Taxidermy book by Melissa Milgrom
Melissa Milgrom digs into the often misunderstood world of taxidermy, going into the workshops where the art is made, where museum dioramas come to blow the dust off the old stigmas.

Get Still Life right here.

Mütter Museum Historic Medical Photographs

Mutter Museum Historical Medical Photographs book
Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum is home to a macabre collection of human oddities and medical anomalies. This book showcases photos from the collection depicting Civil War medicine, ravaging diseases, deformities and psychological disorders.

Get your copy right here.

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930
This book is a window into early American medicine, documenting the rite of cadaver dissection for medical students. These photos pierce the veil, allowing a rare glimpse into the highly exclusive inner sanctum where men cut into dead bodies on bloody tables to learn how to heal the living.

Start dissecting right here.

The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever

The Book of Immortality by Adam Leith Gollner
I haven’t had the opportunity to read this yet, but an excerpt about author Adam Leith Gollner’s journey to David Copperfield’s private island, where the magician claims to have discovered a fountain of youth, definitely caught my attention.

Discover the secrets of immortality right here.

Cabinets of Curiosities

Cabinets of Curiosities book
Cabinets of curiosities began as rooms of wonder or wunderkammer, amazing collections of weird and rare natural history relics, religious artifacts and works of art assembled by intellectuals and royalty.

Get Cabinets of Curiosities right here.

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses

Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
The first offering from Paul Koudounaris, the photos in this book explore the religious sanctuaries where death was put on display – enormous ossuaries decorated with human bones across the globe.

Get Empire of Death here.

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin by Walter Potter
The Death and Burial of Cock Robin by Walter Potter

When Victorian-era English taxidermist Walter Potter’s tiny museum of his own personal anthropomorphic creations was auctioned off in 2003 (read about it in Still Life by Melissa Milgrom) his whimsical collection was dispersed across the globe despite a $1 million bid from artist Damien Hirst to keep the collection together.

Many key pieces of Potter’s work were exhibited by collector Sir Peter Blake in 2010 at London’s Museum of Everything, drawing 30,000 visitors in six weeks.

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy showcases photos of some of Potter’s best-loved work all in one place, and might be the only way they will ever be seen together again.

The book will also be accompanied by a documentary called “Where Kittens Wed and Birds Lament” directed by Ronni Thomas:

There was also a 1965 film about Potter’s work called Crazy Taxidermy Museum – Stuffed Animals in Costumes.

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy by Melissa MilgromStill Life is an engaging journey into the mysterious and often misunderstood world of taxidermy.

Author Melissa Milgrom weaves a fascinating portrait of Carl Akeley, the biologist and taxidermist who pioneered the modern museum habitat diorama, beginning with the muskrat habitat group for the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1890 and ending with his grand vision, the Hall of African Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Also represented in Still Life are contemporary craftsman recreating endangered or extinct species for the World Taxidermy Championship with painstaking attention to detail, and the more artistic side, including the woman who prepares bizarre and realistic mounts for use in the art of Damien Hirst.

Still Life is ridiculously compelling from beginning to end, changing the view of taxidermists from creepy Norman Bates types to passionate artisans, daring explorers and mad geniuses. My fascination with taxidermy always stemmed from the dark and taboo nature of the craft, but now I appreciate it from an entirely new perspective.

Odd Fact: The Recreations category at the World Taxidermy Championship is reserved for mounts crafted from anything but the species it is supposed to represent.

Get Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy right here.