Get ready to explore your mortality through the games, movies, books and shows our contributors are currently consuming. Find new things to read, watch, or play – on your own, or with friends and family of all ages.
Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation — Anime
Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation (櫻子さんの足下には死体が埋まっている) is a gorgeous anime TV series that follows Sakurako Kujou, an eccentric osteologist, and her highschool-aged sidekick Shoutarou Tatewaki as they happen upon crime scenes, solve mysteries, and ultimately help each other mourn their lost loved ones and overcome their own death anxieties. I’ve been binge-watching Beautiful Bones on CrunchyRoll and though I still have a ways to go, so far I’ve been head-over-heels in love with Sakurako and her beautiful collection of bones.
Night in the Woods — Videogame
Night in the Woods is a single-player adventure game for PC, Mac, and Linux that stars Mae, a college dropout who has returned to her hometown of Possum Springs. Now living in her parents’ attic, she must readjust to small town life, but soon her and her friends uncover a dark mystery that leads them into woods nearby. Night in the Woods deals with death in a huge variety of ways — from mourning a lost one, to mourning what your small town once was, to even explicitly dealing with the topic of death and sacrifice at times. Night in the Woods’ greatest strength is how well-written the characters are and how relatable they all feel— Mae’s mother in particular reminded me of my own mother (who died not too long ago) and Night in the Woods has been playing a vital role in how I mourn her. It’s an incredibly special game that I have so many feelings about and cannot recommend enough.
Get Night in the Woods here.
The Last Game I Make Before I Die: The Crashlands Postmortem — YouTube Video / Videogame
Crashlands (PC/Mac/iOS/Android) is a crafting adventure game developed by a trio of brothers (and their studio Butterscotch Shenanigans) shortly after one of the brothers Samuel Coster was diagnosed with cancer. At the 2017 Game Developers Conference (GDC), Samuel presented a postmortem of Crashlands focusing on how dealing with cancer and confronting his own mortality affected the development of the game. It’s a simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant talk that was met with a much-deserved standing ovation, and you can watch the entirety of it on GDC’s YouTube channel. Even if you’re not interested in videogames, I still highly recommend checking it out — Samuel is a fantastic presenter.
Watch The Last Game I Make Before I Die: The Crashlands Postmortem on YouTube.
Chef’s Table – Alex Alta (Season 2) – Documentary Series
Chef Alex Atala is bringing death awareness to a place where we deny death the most: the table. I was introduced to Chef Atala while binging the Netflix series, Chef’s Table. Wearing his iconic “Death Happens” shirt, Atala discusses his attempt to reconnect both chefs and diners to the meat that we eat. Most chefs don’t meet the meat they cook, something that greatly disconnects them from death in the kitchen. Anthony Bourdain admitted in A Cook’s Tour that he hadn’t witnessed an animal’s death-for-food until he was 44. Chef Atala wants to change the way we feel about the culinary experience: “My message is to remember that we are all connected to the meat we consume, to never forget that to eat meat means that death happened.” Chef Atala’s episode is not to be missed.
Watch Chef’s Table: Alex Alta on Netflix.
When I opened up Emil Ferris’ must-read debut graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters, I was socked in the face with unrelenting nostalgia that poured from a kaleidoscopically constructed montage of pulpy perfection. Ferris’ masterpiece, set in 1960’s Chicago, is vesseled in the journal of Karen, a 10 year old lone wolf who thinks of herself, and draws herself, as a werewolf. Her seemingly mundane life is thrown for a loop when her friend Anka, an aging Holocaust survivor who lives upstairs, is murdered and Karen sets out to find the killer. The exploration of “monstrousness” and images of death in this masterpiece are grown of Ferris’ own life experiences; when Ferris was in her 40s, she contracted West Nile Virus and had to learn to draw all over again. The virus gave Ferris wild hallucinations, and these experiences are visible in the incredible scope of her illustrations. Ferris discusses meeting death in a virus induced mirage– “The angel of death came to visit and the angel of death as I saw it in my fever was a very big, 1940s kind of a gray/teal/blue filing cabinet, and it was sort of a bureaucrat and it just came into the room…” [death does often seem like a looming bureaucrat…]
Writing My Favorite Thing is Monsters was Ferris’ response to her brush with death, and it serves as a comforting reminder to the reader that we all face some sort of dark adversity. “I always felt like [monsters] were kind of heroic because they were facing something,” says Ferris “Becoming a monster sometimes isn’t a choice that you have. We’re all that; we’re all ‘the other’ in one way or another.”
Extremis – Documentary
In and out of emergency rooms and nursing facilities, my grandmother’s last breath escaped her under fluorescent lights, wrapped in threadbare hospital sheets. The most painful part of the end of her life was her lack of agency because of her dementia. Her children bickering over DNRs and life support were among the last earthly words she heard. The Netflix documentary Extremis, in a breathtaking twenty-seven minutes, tells the story of people who shared my grandmother’s experience. It takes a raw approach to the doctor’s dilemma and is fearless, showing every emotion a family moves through while deciding on a good death for their loved one. Watching this takes some mental preparation, but I can’t recommend this documentary enough.
Watch Extremis on Netflix.
Doctors – Graphic Novel
Hate that Clive Custler novel your grandpa got you for Christmas? Have an affinity for graphic novels and death positivity? Excellent! Run to your neighborhood comic book store (or to your amazon app) and grab Doctors by Dash Shaw. Doctors is a tale of modern necromancy, bizarre afterlives and letting go. It’s guaranteed to quench your thirst for death and weirdness.
The Dead Bird – Children’s Book
“The bird was dead when the children found it.”
These are the opening words to Margaret Wise Brown’s, classic children’s book, “The Dead Bird.”
The illustrations in the most recent edition, by Christian Robinson, are bright and vivid, in contrast to Brown’s use of simple, and direct language to discuss death – biologically, ritually, and emotionally.
The children are clearly in the midst of intense play in the middle of a beautiful park on a gorgeous day when they encounter death. Through this tiny bird, the children express sorrow that the bird is no longer a part of the world, but proceed to emulate the burial practices and customs with which they were familiar. Brown’s book provides brief and simple explanations, yet is free from taboo and mystery. The children encounter death, mourn, honor, and move on. It isn’t a traumatic event.
The Dead Bird is available on Amazon.
Some may be tempted to argue with me about the brilliance of the Bill and Ted’s most excellent sequel, more formally known as their Bogus Journey, but their encounter with Death should not be overlooked.
In the follow- up film, evil Bill and Ted robots are sent from the future by their nemesis to kill good Bill and Ted in an attempt to change the future and wipe out the utopian society based on their success as rockstars in the band Wyld Stallyns.
Now dead and running around the afterlife, Bill and Ted are frantically trying to figure out how to not be dead. They are seeking the power to determine their own fate and not be dead.
While this may seem silly, throughout human history, Bill and Ted’s dalliance with death highlights the anxiety and disquiet that many feel when thinking about or examining death.
In a totally goofy scene, they challenge Death to a game. If they win, they get to be alive again, but if they lose, game over.. Challenging Death to a game is a theme that has been repeated throughout pop culture for a while. However, the modern imagery of man versus death in a game comes from the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film Seventh Seal. Bergman was influenced by a 15th century art piece by Albertus Pictor which featured Death playing a game of chess.
In Bergman’s film, Death comes for a knight along a rocky beach. The knight tells Death that his body is ready to die, but he is not. As Death approaches him, the knight challenges him to a game of chess. The knight is hoping to stop death, or at least hold him off for awhile. He’s trying, futilely, to outsmart Death.
While Bergman’s knight was unsuccessful, the scene in Bill and Ted pays homage to Bergman’s deeply philosophical film. Yet in a humorous twist, they totally win several times! Perhaps there is a lesson that could be garnered from their winning, such as heart over brain, or passion over wit; but there is something incredibly gratifying about hearing Death say, “You sunk my battleship.”
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is available on Amazon.
Pushing Daisies – Series
One of my most favorite, now cancelled, television shows was about an adorkable, baker named Ned.
“My name is Ned. I live a simple life. I wake pies and make the dead. That was creepy. I make pies and wake the dead…”
Before he was known for his cinematic, dark series about the cannibal, Hannibal, Bryan Fuller produced a charming, visually captivating, short-lived (excuse the pun) sitcom, Pushing Daisies. Lee Pace starred as an awkward, nervous pie-maker, who discovers he has the power to wake the dead. However, there’s a couple of strings attached to this not-so-super power: 1) once he touches a dead person to bring them back to life, he can never touch them again or they’ll die permanently and 1) if he keeps the person alive longer than one minute, another random person must die in their place.
Through a series of weird circumstances, he ends up partnering with a private investigator, and his childhood crush, “Charlotte Charles” that he brought back from the dead, to solve crimes.
However, what I found most intriguing about this super saturated, hyper colorful, world of the living and dead, is that when the dead are awakened, they are always a bit absurd, comical.
The ludicrous deaths and candy coated visuals that defined the series, are so endearing and entertaining that you forget that the show is about death and dying.
“Well, I suppose dying’s as good an excuse as any to start living.”
— Charlotte “Chuck” Charles
Pushing Daises is available in several formats on Amazon.
“So I’m dying. Faster than everyone else,” Claire Wineland giggles at the start of her YouTube episode titled “Life Expectancy.”
Claire is 19 years old, has cystic fibrosis, and is using social media to have frank conversations about death and dying. Her YouTube channel, The Clairity Project, is an open invitation for people to ask all the questions that they’ve been too scared to ask about sickness and death. Claire isn’t shy when addressing topics ranging from sex and relationships to her own illness and challenges. Her conversational and energetic vibe helps to make difficult and sometimes taboo conversations easier and engaging without romanticizing or idealizing the difficulties and fears that many people experience when faced with mortality.
Watch The Clairity Project on YouTube.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Body (Season 5) – Series
There’s been a renewed interest in one of my all time favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as the show turned twenty this year (OMG I AM AN OLDS NOW). Buffy was culturally significant in so many ways – it was feminist af, its signature writing influenced our language, and it depicted a same sex relationship during a time when seeing two girls kiss on TV was a rarity (I still have my collection of Tara action figures!). With standout episodes like Hush, Once More With Feeling and The Body, Buffy repeatedly elevated the medium of television.
There’s a ton of deathiness to delve into throughout the show’s six seasons, as Buffy and the Scoobies face countless supernatural deaths, and save us from the apocalypse – a lot. However, the episode The Body is arguably the most accurate depiction of death and grief in a series. It is full of terrible, yet beautiful moments that perfectly illustrate the experience surrounding a death – none of these more so than Anya’s heartbreaking monologue. It is here that she gives voice to all of us, as we struggle to comprehend death itself – “What’s going to happen? What is expected of us? Are we going to see the body? Will we be in the same room with a dead body? Are they going to cut the body open?”
Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Hulu.
I Am Not Your Negro – Documentary
I recently attended a screening of this Oscar nominated documentary, featuring and based on the work of American writer and social critic, James Baldwin.
The doc is a profound and vital examination of American identity, which delves into who we are as a nation, by examining and reflecting on our history. Underneath it all, our death-phobic society is exposed, and we are forced to confront our own fears and complicity.
Each of us contributes to this national identity and culture through our own beliefs and notably, fears. In particular, our fear surrounding death can shape our behavior and subsequent actions in unexpected and often disturbing ways, (see How the Unrelenting Threat of Death Shapes Our Behavior) Viewing I Am Not Your Negro is a way to begin examining those fears and beliefs by attempting to understand ourselves – both as individuals and as a nation – beginning with taking responsibility for our fear of death and “confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”
“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” – James Baldwin.
Sammus – Time Crisis – Song
Sammus is my current aural obsession. Her track, Time Crisis, immediately calls to mind one of my favorite pieces from Caitlin Doughty, What the Dead Can Teach Us About Aging and Beauty, in which she challenges our death denying ideas of physical aesthetics and the value we place on youth.
I’m complaining we live in a system / in which aging’s an act of resistance / I am a mortal, yeah I ain’t the Highlander / I’ll be a corpse one day under a pile of dirt
Gabby DaRienzo is a Toronto-based independent video game developer and artist, who is currently developing death-positive funeral home simulation game A Mortician’s Tale with her studio Laundry Bear Games. When Gabby isn’t making games, she hosts and produces the Play Dead Podcast which talks with game developers about how death is used and approached in their games. You can follow Gabby on Twitter, where she tweets about death, videogames, and art.
Krista Amira Calvo is a bioarchaeologist living in a tiny studio apartment in the Upper East Side with her partner, a necromancer. She excavates and studies human remains, sometimes in Transylvania, and studies the anthropology of death and end of life care in third world countries. She loves ramen, her two cats, and television shows about food. She is currently doing research on feminism in bioarchaeology while simultaneously feeding her partner her subpar attempts at authentic ramen. She is very death positive. Follow Krista on Instagram.
Myeashea Alexander is a biological anthropologist and science communicator from Brooklyn, NY. Currently, she is researching early African- American communities, burials, and skeletal pathologies. Additionally, Myeashea manages her blog, The Rockstar Anthropologist, and operates a mobile bone lab as part of her public outreach project that provides hands on learning opportunities for classrooms and community centers to learn about forensic anthropology, archaeology and science. You can follow Myeashea on Twitter and Instagram.
Sarah Chavez is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death and co-founder of the feminist death site, Death & the Maiden. With a costumer father and a celebrity publicist mother, Sarah spent her childhood on the sound stages of Hollywood, immersed in the pop culture dream factory of Los Angeles. She currently resides on a farm in California, where she does things for her Italian Greyhound, and cooks funeral and death ritual foods. You can follow Sarah on Twitter and Instagram.