Death permeates the lives of those dwelling in The Bottom, the black neighborhood featured in Toni Morrison's Sula; it is close and constant, a persistent reminder of their poverty and diminished futures.
Sula Peace and her childhood friend Nel encounter death early on when playing with a neighborhood boy, Chicken Little. After accidentally losing her grip on the boy while swinging him, Sula sends Chicken Little careening into the river, and he drowns. This becomes a horrible secret between Sula and Nel--one that informs the pair's friendship and eventually causes them to grow apart.
Death continues in Sula's life when her mother's dress catches on fire and the woman burns to death in front of Sula. Sula's grandmother, Eva, also sets her own son on fire and begins to self-mutilate. Sula herself dies at the end of the novel, an event which (in its own right) wreaks havoc on the harmony within the town.
Another significant event is the "National Suicide Day" which is led by Shadrack, a World War I veteran, who believes that this celebration will compartmentalize the town's relationship to death. When Shadrack leads a crowd down to the abandoned tunnels, much of the town is killed by a sudden flood.
Death, in other words, is an immense destructive force throughout the novel, largely through the dueling influences of water and fire, emphasizing the hopelessness that pervades this poor community.
Death, and its relationship to poverty and survival, is an important topic in the novel. The people of Bottom scramble to survive, the significance of this is seen in National Suicide Day, which Shadrack invents to contain the fear of death. The narrator explains that the people of Bottom “did not believe doctors could heal…They did not believe death was accidental…death was deliberate.” Shadrack thought people would not have to fear death the rest of the year if a special day was set aside just for it. The people of Bottom accept his plan, but of course nothing contains death. “National Suicide Day” is an attempt to compartmentalize the death and fear that pervades their lives, but of course it does not work at all.