NOTHING PROVES human consciousness is an evolutionary blunder more effectively than our innate fear of death. It’s inescapable and feels totally fucking useless biologically.

Most of us develop ways to compartmentalize these anxieties, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. But for some, obsession only festers and grows until it becomes debilitating, and that’s why Zoloft exists.

Casey Jarman falls squarely into the latter camp. He thinks about death so much that he wrote a book about it. In the foreword to Death: An Oral History, Jarman admits that he set out to write about his favorite least-favorite subject at least partially so he could quell his own dread. “Talking to people about death for a year seemed like a pretty solid way to combat my own fear of it,” he writes. “Call it exposure therapy. If you have a fear of heights, spend some time in the mountains. If you’re scared of physical pain, get yourself into a fistfight. If you’re scared of death, what can you do, short of dying?”

But Jarman’s incisive ruminations are limited to the book’s first six pages. The bulk of Death is comprised of eighteen interviews with a range of subjects united only by the significance death has played in their lives, including Jarman’s own mother; singer-songwriter and reformed Christian David Bazan; and Frank Thompson, a former death-row warden who conducted Oregon’s last two executions.

While some of these interviews are merely interesting—like the one with Katrina Spade, founder of Urban Death Project, a Seattle organization that aims to turn human corpses into compost—many are deeply affecting, particularly when Jarman has clear emotional stock in his subject. One such highlight is an interview with Gabriel DePiero, a childhood acquaintance of Jarman’s whose identical twin brother committed suicide with his father’s gun at age 13. The book’s centerpiece is an interview with Jarman’s mother Wende, who recounts her motherless childhood and unexpected brush with death a few years back. These segments are less journalistic, and make the reader feel like a fly on the wall for a delicate conversation between intimates.

Death is insidiously accessible. It’s a harrowing and heavy read, and it seldom meanders into mawkish, faux-spiritual territory. (This is not Proof of Heaven.) Jarman is primarily concerned with death’s role in the physical world—what it means for people whose lives have been shattered by it, and for those whose vocations rely on it. Still, Death provides a sort of “realistic optimism” about the end of the line: To varying degrees, we’re all afraid, and none of us are alone.

Death: An Oral History
by Casey Jarman
(Pulp/Zest Books)