The narrator is still grieving over the recent death of her father, D.M. He suffered from emphysema and died from a sarcoma of the intestine that metastasized to other organs. While visiting Sweden, the narrator explores the Royal Library. There she discovers the celebrated Encyclopedia of the Dead--a massive collection of thousands of volumes chronicling in detail the lives of ordinary people who have died.

She finds the biography of her father and takes notes while reading it throughout the night. Fifty years of his life in Belgrade are summarized in only 5 or 6 pages yet amazingly nothing seems to be left out. No detail is too small--the first day he ever smoked a cigarette, an episode of food poisoning, a love letter.

The text is illustrated with a picture of her father and an odd flower. Late in life, he began painting floral patterns like the one depicted in the book. According to the Encyclopedia, his interest in painting paralleled the onset and progression of his cancer. In fact, the narrator learns that the flower in the book closely resembles the appearance of the sarcoma that claimed his life.


Despite its title, "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" is not a horror story. Rather it is a sentimental tale that makes a case for the worth of every individual and the importance of dreams (those that die and those we keep alive). The Encyclopedia aims to lengthen life and stands for equality in eternity. Most importantly, the fictional registry and the story itself prove that love is the only force capable of muting death.

"What makes the Encyclopedia unique (apart from its being the only existing copy) is the way it depicts human relationships, encounters, landscapes--the multitude of details that make up a human life." (p. 42). Everything is recorded concisely but eloquently. Although the Encyclopedia originated around 1789, it remains shrouded in mystery. Just who records the myriad details of the ordinary lives of innumerable people? How do they obtain all this information? Why does the Encyclopedia reside in Sweden?

What is the point of collecting, cataloging, and preserving such an enormous amount of data about ordinary people? The story provides many reasons: "History is the sum of human destinies." (p. 56). "Nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated." (p. 51). "Each individual is a star unto himself." (p. 51).

The story works well in conjunction with The Death of Ivan Ilyich (see this database). Unlike Tolstoy's tale of a life "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible," this story by Kis contends that there is value, depth, and meaning to each life. There is no such thing as an "ordinary" life.


Translated by Michael Henry Heim. The story was also published (in another translation) in The New Yorker.

Primary Source

The Encyclopedia of the Dead


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count