The Longform Guide to Dying

Stories about near-death experiences, suicide, organ donation, and more.

A religious sculpture, covered with snow is seen at the cemetery in Germany.

Photo by Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

We’re all going to go someday—a collection of stories about the inevitable.

A Matter of Life and Death
Marjorie Williams • Vanity Fair • October 2005

After being diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer at age 43, Williams resolves to make the most of her “bonus time” with her young children between visits to specialists:


“I fear that my Alice will never really learn to wear tights. (You’d think, from watching my husband try to help her into them on the rare occasion when he’s asked, that he’d been asked to perform a breech birth of twin colts at the peak of a blizzard). That no one will ever really brush her fine, long hair all the way through, and that she will display a perpetual bird’s nest at the back of her neck. (And—what? People will say her slatternly mother should have drummed better Hair Care into her family’s minds before selfishly dying of cancer?) That no one will ever put up curtains in my dining room, the way I’ve been meaning to for the last three years.


“Deeper: Who will talk to my darling girl when she gets her period? Will my son sustain that sweet enthusiasm he seems to beam most often at me? There are days I can’t look at them—literally, not a single time—without wondering what it will do to them to grow up without a mother. What if they can’t remember what I was like? What if they remember, and grieve, all the time?

“What if they don’t?”

Feet In Smoke
John Jeremiah Sullivan • Oxford American • January 1999

The weeks following a near-death experience.

“I’ve tried so many times over the years to describe for people the person who woke up from that electrified death, the one who remained with us for about a month before he went back to being the Worth we’d known and know now. It would save me a lot of trouble to be able to say “it was like he was on acid,” but that wouldn’t be quite true. Instead, he seemed to be living one of those imaginary acid trips we used to pretend to be on in junior high—you know, “Hey, man, your nose is like a star or something, man.” He had gone there. It was an über-acid trip, only better, and scarier, and altogether more profound. My father and I kept notes, neither of us aware that the other was doing it, trying to get down all of Worth’s little disclosures before they faded beyond recapture, or became indistinct against the backdrop of their own abundance. As I write this, I have my own list in front of me. There’s no best place to begin, so I’ll just transcribe a few things:


“Squeezed my hand late on the night of the 23d. Whispered, ‘That’s the human experience.’”

Amid Ill and Dying Inmates, a Search for Redemption
Part I | Part II
Kurt Streeter • Los Angeles Times • November 2011

A two-part series on terminal inmates and those trying to save them.

“Opened in 1991 in response to the AIDS epidemic, it was cramped and spartan: 17 beds in seven patient rooms surrounding a narrow nursing station. Ill inmates from all over the state could petition to be transferred there if prison doctors gave them a prognosis of six months to live.

“A Presbyterian minister inspired by Mother Teresa and Gandhi was in charge. Chaplain Keith Knauf believed that working to ease death could teach compassion. He decreed that no sick convict be judged: not the rapists, not the kidnappers, not the serial killers. Dying in prison—dying, as many did, with overwhelming guilt or bitterness—was judgment enough.


Are You Sure You Want To Quit The World?
Nadya Labi • GQ • Oct. 2010

On identifying the man who encouraged strangers to kill themselves over the Internet.

“Suicide chat rooms can save lives. The very act of logging on to a site like alt.suicide.methods (ASM) or alt.suicide.holiday (ASH) offers a potentially suicidal person the chance of finding support, redemption, or relief from the loneliness that led him there in the first place. Or logging on could be the first step a suicidal person takes to find the expertise, the courage, even the companionship, to go through with it. These chat rooms can provide a lifeline, or they can amount to a death sentence. It all depends on who’s online and what they’re doing there.”


The Cold Hard Facts of Freezing to Death
Peter Stark • Outside • Jan. 1997

A step-by-step account.

“But for all scientists and statisticians now know of freezing and its physiology, no one can yet predict exactly how quickly and in whom hypothermia will strike–and whether it will kill when it does. The cold remains a mystery, more prone to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and the unaware.

“The process begins even before you leave the car, when you remove your gloves to squeeze a loose bail back into one of your ski bindings. The freezing metal bites your flesh. Your skin temperature drops.”


The Resurrection of Wonder Woman
Eleanor Vincent • Creative Nonfiction • 2012

On a mother’s decision to donate her daughter’s organs.

“As a ‘biomort,’ or a ‘beating heart cadaver,’ Maya was suspended in a nether world between life and death. Her brain would never function again, but with life support, her heart continued to beat and her chest rose and fell, filled with mechanically produced oxygen. When Dr. Carr asked if I would donate Maya’s organs, I gave my consent in a state of raw emotion with little knowledge of the ethical fog zone I had just entered. Within minutes, ‘life support’ became ‘organ support.’ A few hours later, surgeons began to ‘harvest’ my daughter’s organs and tissues, work that continued through the night.


“Thank God no one asked me to make the decision to unplug her. I would have left her there, suspended, her brain growing ever more gangrenous, simply to have the illusion of life, to stand next to her bed watching her pink cheeks and her closed eyes, the rhythm of her rising and falling chest, to be able to whisper words of love in my daughter’s ear. But tens of thousands of dollars were being spent for her care, and the doctors knew there was no hope she could recover.”

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