For my first book review here at Needle and Bow I decided I wasn’t going to ease in—we’re face-planting right into death. Welcome!
“Confessions of a Funeral Director: How Death Saved My Life” by Caleb Wilde was published by HarperOne in 2017 with a paperback release in 2018. It is part memoir, part spiritual philosophy, and part really good advice about coping with death and dying.
In other words: This. Book. Is. Amazing.
I read this book because I have been exploring death a lot lately. I’m writing a short story collection where each story has to do with sex and death (very on-brand of me). A friend I went to college with became a funeral director and just last year I finally gathered the guts to ask him for a tour of the funeral home. He obliged and I survived. I’ve had panic attacks about death since I was around ten years old and it’s an area that I find simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. I almost died a couple times growing up due to my various health issues so it’s also an area that I feel somewhat intimate and ironically at ease with. Death and I are frenemies, but we’re working it out.
And I can say this book did a lot to help me work it out. I wrote down several lines from this book that elegantly and succinctly untangled some issue or shed a brand new light on one of my anxieties. For me, this book is a tool I will likely be turning to in the future when I’m dealing with death. I’m really grateful for that.
This book is not a tome. At 174 pages before the notes, the book could easily be read quickly, but I found myself taking my time with it. There is nothing, in my opinion, lacking in this book. The 16 chapters are perfectly paced and the author illustrates his points without overindulging. As far as personal narrative writing goes, this prose is major goals. The narrative voice Wilde has paired with what I gather was a great editorial process captures the perfect balance in personal/philosophical writing. And the fact the author started as a blogger plucks my heartstrings, for sure.
Wilde writes a lot about his spirituality and how his Christian upbringing impacted him and his views. But I don’t think this comes off as preachy or as advocating for Christianity. In fact, the author is very open about his struggles and spiritual doubts that really transcends any one religious view. His process making peace with his life and place in the world also draws on down-to-earth psychological issues like anxiety and professional burnout. I really appreciated his honesty. At one point he writes that keeping his funeral director face on for too long can be really grating. This is just one small example that struck me of something that made his prose feel authentic.
Some people might think the author’s spirituality is too strong of a force in the book, but I really don’t think it’s an issue. I admit that I ping-pong between believing there is a deep, cosmic, transcendent afterlife and believing that there is no consciousness or existence after death (told you I’m still working it out). But I found this book actually sits well with both these conflicting ideas. If you are the kind of defensive person that gets uptight when anyone mentions god or spirituality, then perhaps this book is not for you. The rest of us should be fine.
Okay, now the death part. The book is by no means showy and the author never, from what I could perceive, put anything in for shock value. (There is some well-timed death humor in appropriate places, but I appreciated that, too.) However, this book explores some of the most vulnerable times in people’s lives and the most difficult types of deaths to cope with. There’s no getting around the fact that it is not easy to read sometimes and the gore, heartbreak, and pain are part of the experience. The author also points out the often taboo idea that sometimes death brings good things to people’s lives. There are a ton of complexities explored in this book. The essence of the human experience this author draws from these vulnerable times and disturbing deaths is sacred and astounding. At least they were to me.
There’s a lot to be gleaned about our day to day lives in this book as well. Lessons in patience and connection, family and love, and working through our insecurities or doubts. The author often advocates in various ways for mental health and emotional understanding.
I didn’t relate to some of the things that the author wrote about, but I was glad to have read and learned from them. There were also threads from my own experience that Wilde’s words drew from me, tangled and frayed, and wove them into something a little more secure and understandable. And that is a tremendous gift.
Obviously, I highly recommend this book. I hope that you might, as I did, pick up some pieces from this book that will help you mourn or rise or even just look at death. My journey with death isn’t over yet, but it is brighter after having read this book.