Maybe when you were eighteen you stood next to your older brother looking at your grandma all embalmed/en-coffined while your mom crept up behind shaking shoulders ready to provide comfort to her children’s sobbing only to find you both giggling and remarking how “dude that is NOT how grandma would have done her makeup and her glasses are all shoved too far up on her nose.”
Maybe you’re starting to worry about your folks’ eventual deaths. Maybe your dad is now the age his father was when he died of a stroke when you were in 4th grade. Maybe you’re totally on top of hassling your folks to have their health care directives and wills and DNRs clearly specified and noted in triplicate so you don’t have to go through the sorts of end-of-life fuckery they went through with their parents.
Maybe each death experience for you has been an exercise in contrast for how you’re totally going to do things differently than grandma and grandpa because fuck that whole embalming/open-casket thing where friends and family scowl uneasily at what looks like a bad wax replica of you. Also too, fuck getting buried as a corpse just in case there ever IS some Thriller/28 Days Later/Resident Evil viral alien zombie apocalypse shit that reanimates the dead, because seriously fuck that. Just try reanimating our ashes, bitches.
Maybe some of your most significant episodes of death fucking with you have been in conjunction with a critter peacing-out. Perhaps as a kid your parents were the arbiters of hastening Fluffy’s journey over the Rainbow Bridge (fuck that noise – there wasn’t any Rainbow Bridge when we were 12), or perhaps you’re a grown-ass person dissolved into utter inconsolability at the death of your four-legged.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ve settled into your life just comfortably enough to be embarrassed at the good fortune of souls who inhabit your personal solar system. Perhaps as a result you haven’t entirely noticed shrugging off your 20’s/30’s laissez faire, devil-may-care about life just enough to have stumbled unwittingly into the realm of mildly starting to freak the fuck out about that whole dying bullshit. Maybe it’s a race to the bottom between freaking the fuck out that you are going to die and the sinking realization that those you’ve really settled into thinking are pretty fucking worth knowing are also all going to die.
We don’t know about the rest of you suckers, but we’re were pretty sure we’ve unlocked achievement “Team Immortals,” so other than dealing with the quitters in our lives who die, hell if we give the whole bunch of nonsense much thought otherwise.
But enough about us. Let’s turn the death talk over to someone who knows what she’s talking about – Caitlin Doughty, crematory operator and author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.
So masterfully do we hide death, you would almost believe we are the first generation of immortals.
Oh. Well, then.
And with that you’re off riding shotgun with Ms. Doughty through the American funeral industry as she progresses from needing-a-job medieval history major to crematory operator to “deth skool” student and beyond. Ms. Doughty spins up historical and cultural context of the myriad ways that humans have long tackled death head on, which only in the past century has (d)evolved into the great American pastime of alternately denying death and freaking out about death. She makes a compelling case as to why we shouldn’t freak the fuck out about dying and being dead, but rather that pursuit of a meaningful life in part involves pursuit of a good death. She asserts that pursuit of a good death includes, among other things, pulling our heads out of our asses when it comes to the massive fucking racket that is the “death industry” in America, about which Ms. Doughty, to her credit, is rather more diplomatic in her choice of words than we are.
Note, she isn’t fucking around when she asserts “[f]or those who do not wish to read realistic depictions of death and dead bodies, you have stumbled into the wrong book;” this isn’t some fleece-lined, snuggle-fest death-acceptance self-help book. However, don’t sell yourself short on thinking you can’t stomach the corpse gore – descriptions of which are absolutely unvarnished but not at all gratuitous – because we think the narrative and philosophical underpinnings are not only, er, dead on but are intended to be digested precisely in the context of the significant discomfort we feel about death, dying and the dead, sans euphemisms or averting our gaze both figurative and literal.
Come for the engaging and enthusiastically narrated tales of corpses, decomposition, and the death industry (“the stories are true and the people are real”), stay for the pointed yet gentle prodding to your notions and expectations about death and being dead (or, vice versa). And if you’re too good to get all philosophical or introspective about the finer points of death and being dead, pick it up anyway because it’s genuinely funny without being tacky or two-dimensionally gallows-humored.
Also, props to Ms. Doughty for making us rethink our assessment of Millennials as entitled snow-flakes who refuse to get out from under Mom’s helicopter blades long enough to figure out how to be grown ups.