Death often plays an important role in literature. After all, it’s a universal experience and a driving force behind many actions. No one escapes from it, and death represents that vast unknown frontier that we will all one day explore.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Short Stories About the Death of a Friend
- Short Stories About the Death of a Family Member
- Short Stories About the Death of a Partner or Spouse
- Funny Short Stories About Death
- Short Stories About Death and Love
Because of this, most prolific writers eventually examine death as a theme in their work. Here are some short stories about death, grief, and loss written by some of the world’s most famous writers.
Please understand that we will be spoiling the plots of these short stories. If you would rather approach the literature from a fresh point of view, avoid reading the descriptions.
Short Stories About the Death of a Friend
We’ve scoured short story anthologies to look for short stories about death. Please understand that some of these stories may be painful to read if you recently lost a loved one. Just as watching movies about death might be difficult for you, reading some of these stories may be a distressing experience.
1. “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy
This short story/novella examines what it means to live a good life and the inevitability of death. The story begins with the title character’s death and the reaction of his friends and family to it.
Then, the plot shifts to 30 years before Ivan’s death and tells the story of the young Ivan – a man with misplaced priorities. A freak accident while hanging up curtains causes Ivan to consider his mortality, and the thoughts of death terrify him. He finally understands that the relationships he formed during his life were artificial. He has an epiphany while on his deathbed, and “in the place of death there was light.” The character then exclaims, “So that’s what it is! . . . What joy!” as he dies with a sigh.
Tolstoy is said to have written this story soon after his conversion to Christianity. He also wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
2. “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
At the beginning of this short story, four survivors of a shipwreck are in a small dinghy in the middle of the sea. The small crew is in a precarious position because their boat can’t handle the rough waves, and they are forced to work non-stop to stay afloat.
While they have hopeful moments that rescue may be imminent, their struggle continues until they are finally forced into the cold water. Three of the four survive the ordeal.
The themes of this story are that nature is indifferent to the sufferings of man. However, our connections with others help us face the cruel, indifferent nature.
Stephen Crane’s best-known work is The Red Badge of Courage, a short novel that takes place during the American Civil War.
Short Stories About the Death of a Family Member
If you recently lost a family member, you may try to overlook the negative aspects of your relationships and the bad memories. However, some of these short stories on our list describe complicated relationships with those who died. Because of that, these stories aren’t for everyone.
3. “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Ann Porter
Like other stories on our list, the central character is lying on her deathbed in this story by Katherine Ann Porter. In between moments of confusion and clarity, Granny Weatherall reflects on her current situation as well as her past life. The reader learns that the central character had been jilted at the altar by a man named George, but she later marries and has children with John.
Although it isn’t clear if Granny uncovers any mysteries of life on her deathbed, the reader learns about the role of denial in Granny’s life. Instead of wallowing in despair about lost loves, difficult relationships, and her daughter’s death, she ignores these heartbreaking experiences and moves on with life.
4. “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow
Difficult familial relationships is one theme of “A Silver Dish.” At the beginning of this story, the reader learns that Woody, a man in his 60s, has recently lost his father. He reflects on his history with his father and recalls an account when his dad stole a silver dish from Woody’s benefactor, who is paying his way through seminary. The crime forces Woody to leave school.
His reminiscences fast forward to his father’s death bed when Woody prevents the old man from pulling the feeding tubes out of his arms.
Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of his most famous books is The Adventures of Augie March.
Short Stories About the Death of a Partner or Spouse
If you are new to grief from the loss of a spouse, you are probably reeling from your loss. Most grief experts advise widows and widowers to avoid making major decisions until at least a year following their loved one’s death.
Here are some short stories that discuss the death of husbands and wives. We also included the memoir of Joyce Carol Oates on our list.
5. “The Knowers” by Helen Phillips
Technology exists that allows people to find out the exact date they will die. A wife decides to find out, much to her husband’s chagrin.
As the couple grows old together, their relationship is enriched and strained by knowing the death date.
Phillips graduated from Yale and is an associate professor at Brooklyn College. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their children.
6. A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
Please understand that this selection is a memoir instead of a short story. However, we decided to include it on our list because Oates is a highly-praised short story writer, and this is her personal account of the loss of her husband of 46 years.
Some people struggle to find their purpose after the death of a spouse. If you face this dilemma, know that you are not alone.
Funny Short Stories About Death
We apologize if you feel that this category is not appropriate. But, the fact is that people cope with death in different ways. So, here are some stories that present death in a somewhat lighthearted or ironic manner. Of course, our list of funny short stories begins with a little-known piece by Mark Twain.
7. “Is He Dead?” by Mark Twain
This play by Mark Twain was based on a short story the author wrote. In it, a French painter stages his death to increase the value of his paintings. He later dresses as a woman to keep his secret from the public.
Mark Twain is a pseudonym for Samuel Clemens. Twain/Clemens wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and numerous short stories such as the “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
8. “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
Please understand that this isn’t a typical heartbreaking story about losing a spouse. Instead, the main character isn’t disappointed when she learns that her husband died in an accident. She reflects on her new freedom and hopes for a long life. However, at the end of the story, the widow sees her husband walk through the door. The woman dies of shock.
Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening, which has been described as a case study of 19th Century feminism.
Short Stories About Death and Love
Are you still trying to find that perfect story about death that describes your experience with loss and grief? We know that many of the stories on our list tell exaggerated accounts and over-the-top plots. Perhaps that’s why these stories are so popular and easy to find.
Here are a few more stories about death and love to consider.
9. “Wild Horses” by Rick Bass
In “Wild Horses,” Karen’s fiance drowns in the Mississippi River the day before their wedding. Karen blames the death on her fiance’s friend Sydney. Sydney, who breaks wild horses for a living, also feels guilt for witnessing the tragedy but failing to save his friend. Sydney attempts to “break” Karen from her grief while struggling with his own.
Rick Bass is a writer and an environmental activist. He has a Bachelor of Science in Geology with a focus in Wildlife from Utah State University.
10. “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
The power of death is the theme for this rather macabre story by William Faulkner. In this famous short story, a southern woman lives with her father, who refuses to let her marry anyone beneath her station. When the father dies, Emily refuses to give up his body for burial – insisting that her father wasn’t dead. She finally gives up her dad’s corpse for burial.
Later, a laborer comes into town and is seen spending time with Emily. Emily purchases gifts for the man, who neighbors assume will soon become her husband. However, the man disappears, and a strange smell emanates from the house.
Years later, Emily dies. The townspeople enter her home for services and break down a locked door. There, they discover the decayed corpse of the laborer who had gone missing. Near the corpse was a pillow with the indentation of a head and a long gray hair.
This story by Faulkner is a popular choice for high school and college reading lists. Faulkner also wrote The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.
What Does Your Favorite Author Have to Say About Death?
Since death is such a popular subject, consider looking at a list of works by your favorite authors to find a time when they broached the subject. You might also begin your search by finding quotes about death by your favorite writers.