As a brand new mother, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen confesses she was an unlikely candidate to initiate a detached investigation of America’s changing funerary rites and practices. She also admits that she wasn’t the only one strolling the aisles of the undertaker’s convention with a baby in tow. Funeral homes are, after all, a family affair. Cullen’s Remember Me may have begun as a piece of hard-hitting journalism, but her newborn, and her new perspective as a mother, brings her closer to the humor and humility inherent in her subject. Cullen’s look at America’s changing deathscape is a canny and candid unraveling of the assumptions and practices surrounding death in America. She presents a still image of an industry that is no longer, well, still. And her inquiries into the commercial, material, and downright fantastical elements of an industry once thought staid, if not macabre, prove entertaining and insightful.
The book is divided into chapters that each explore a major shift or new trend in the funerary business. There are chapters on caskets, cremains (the cremated deceased’s remains), and newer, non-traditional forms of remembering the dead. The first half of the book is also scattered with vignettes from lives that relate to the topic at hand. Though well-crafted and tidy, these vignettes are emotionally messy in the best, most poignant of ways–tender and funny, valiant and vulnerable. They read like ideal obituaries: lively, affecting narratives of someone’s life; not stodgy catalogues of facts imposed by custom, but something genuinely celebratory. I found myself touched, if not tearing up, by the end of each one. For a journalist endeavoring to write an exposé of America’s death circuit, Cullen achieves a remarkably sensitive and emotionally resounding tale of loss, grief, and commemoration, exposing our collective desires for immortality and our personal fears of obscurity. She lays bare the need for not only our deaths to be meaningful but also, and more importantly, our lives.
Cullen expertly shows that death is in some ways a business, and a big one at that. Without cynicism, she explores the expanding market potential of funerals and their unique, sometimes bizarre wares that are geared towards the Baby Boomers and their buying power. One of Cullen’s major questions is how this generation, one that has flouted cultural, social, and sexual morés over the last fifty years, might also defy tradition when it comes to planning their last rites. What are we to make of the growing demand for “green” burials, ecologically sound funerals that use things like biodegradable urns that house the cremains along with a bevy of wildflowers or an urn shaped liked a seashell that disintegrates when tossed into water? (We assume this will be some swift-moving stream not a gurgling bathtub.)
Even something as subtle as the growing increase in cremation over traditional burial suggests a shift in the psychology of death and the diminishment of religion’s influence over its representation. Traditionally, religious ceremonies and funeral wares provide comfort by adhering to a familiar script, in some ways creating a rehearsal for your own death and memorial. The trend toward cremation changes this. Cullen, quoting the Cremation Association of North America, says that by 2025, nearly half of deaths will end in cremation. Though not a death knell to the casket industry, the figure does suggest that current consumers are not wary of leaving the comfort of a typical burial. The Western taboo against cremation, making the body quite unsuitable for the resurrection of Christian Rapture, seems less tenacious. And mourners seem less reliant on sustaining the pretext that the body is enduring. In these new representations, cremation included, there is still ceremony, and there is a spiritual presence. Singing, silent or collective prayers and remembrances, candles, and homilies. But these rites are less centered around the collective rites of religion than on distinguishing the corpse as an individual.
Death in America today is not just more secular; it is also more sensual. Gone are the days of plain pine coffins and your Sunday best. (Unless you want that simplicity, and then it is available, a deliberate retreat from commercial frenzy. It, too, is a choice.) Cullen conveys this industry imperative quite well in an excerpt of a workshop from the 2004 National Funeral Directors Association convention in Nashville, TN. Called “Creating the Ultimate Celebration of Life Experience,” Valerie Wages, one of co-presenters, urges her audience to get to know the deceased, ask probing questions of their family and friends in order to create a truly personal experience and to avoid the “greet and weep.” She says “When words are inadequate, have a ritual. Engage the five senses. Did Mom make doilies? Lay them out–let people touch. Did she bake? Put her chocolate-chip cookie recipe in the memory folder. Lay out the pipe tobacco or the baby powder.” You can almost smell the cookies baking, coincidentally enough a technique that realtors often use when showing houses to recall memories of security, abundance, “homey-ness.”
And like realtors casting a house in the best light, funeral directors likewise set the stage for memory and spectacle. As Lou Stellato, a director of a family-owned funeral home in Lyndhurst, NJ put it “Oh, funeral service as we know it is over. . . . We can no longer deliver funerals out of a cookie cutter. We must become event planners.” Stellato faces the day-to-day challenges of transforming his father’s staid, stolid business into a nimble, market-sensitive company, an important objective, given that the funeral business is a $20 billion industry. What seems to be unsettling to everyone involved, including Cullen, is the tension between encomium and economics: how do you honor the dead while turning a profit? As Valerie Wage goes on to say in her presentation, “Dangit, we need to get out of the box and save families. Take that step. Make that difference. Bring their pet in and let it sit on her chest. Who’s going to remember the casket she was buried in?” Quite right. With Grandma’s golden retriever sitting on her chest, no one will probably remember anything else.
It is difficult to overlook the absurdity of the industry’s imperative to recreate the intimate details and mazy narrative of someone’s life with doilies and baby powder and seventy-five pound canines, arrayed like props, warm and fuzzy memento mori. The staging of grief is also a bit obscene, and it seems that Wage’s intent to save the family is to coerce their emotional catharsis. How very Greek. And in keeping with the conventions of classical tragedy, the death occurs offstage, but the dramatic consequences ensue onstage: the pulling of hair, the gnashing of teeth, and the renting of garments. Cullen recognizes that, even though they are the audience of Wage’s presentation, funeral directors might be reluctant to adopt this tactic enthusiastically. It’s not that creating a personal touch is ineffective, but rather it is too effective. Dealing so creatively with death day in and day out takes a personal toll on the funeral directors. Cullen is savvy in sensing that not only do funeral directors have businesses to run, they also have their sanity to safeguard.
Cullen safeguards her own sanity through professionalism and an occasional dash of humor. Approaching her topic as a reporter, she is rather conservative in her judgments and, except for a few flippant asides that add bursts of levity, she prudently allows readers to make up their own minds. While the book is neither a heady, intellectual interrogation of the economics of death and dying nor a collection of first-person mortality tales, it contains elements of both. These elements are smartly balanced with a spirited, sassy look at some of the outlandish things humans do in their attempts to both arrest and celebrate death.
Perhaps Cullen is right to keep most of her jokes to herself, as the topic itself provides its own off-kilter hilarity. We are never more comedic than when trying to safeguard our posterity, awkwardly treading the line between the sacrosanct and the ridiculous. “End-trepeneurs” simply seal the matter. Solid mahogany caskets upwards of twenty grand. A half-carat diamond made from 8 ounces of your husband’s cremains. Ashes mixed with cement to create an artificial reef that, dropped to the bottom of the ocean, will teem with underwater life just as if it were naturally made. Coffins in the shapes of muscle cars or giant lobsters. Mummified remains–not in Egypt 3000 years ago, but in Salt Lake City in 2005. And yet what can easily be considered absurd takes on an aspect of devotion under Cullen’s hand. She strives to understand this peculiar market, at once both extremely specialized and blatantly universal, and discover what motivates purveyors and consumers alike. Particularly effective are the personal accounts that provide context (and lend credence) to the seemingly-strange post-mortem decisions: to memorialize your husband in a diamond ring or set him out to sea, or under it, as the case may be. Cullen provides a personal glimpse at a very uncomfortable, but necessary undertaking.
At about the midpoint, the book takes a turn into strange, perhaps frightening territory when Cullen attends the “Dead Guy Days” festival in the tiny town of Nederland, CO. The chapter is aptly titled “Disney on Ice,” and there is a decidedly Neverland-like surrealism to the town where Bredo Morstoel, a Norwegian immigrant who died in 1989, is kept on hundreds of pounds of dry ice in a Tuff Shed, the product of his grandson’s simultaneous devotion to medical science and fervent apocalyptic fantasies. (The Ice House is just fifty feet from a cement bunker, built to withstand a nuclear war and the rather fierce Colorado winters.)
Originally the town was shocked and outraged to discover their homemade cryogenics project, but in the true spirit of American capitalism the town has come to not only embrace, but also to enthusiastically promote, their claim to notoriety. The festival boasts casket races, Dead Guy Ale, and midnight tours of the shed and deep freeze that come complete with champagne, souvenirs, and spooky sound effects. (The body itself is hidden within a steel sarcophagus, to the disappointment of Cullen, fellow tourists, and the reader.) The chapter shines with Cullen’s graceful, meandering prose, and you can tell that she enjoys the exercise as much for the irreverent nod, a kind of “flipping the bird” at death, as for the momentary diversion from deathwares and their marketplace.
One of the most insightful, endearing chapters comes near then end when Cullen returns to Japan for her Opapa’s–her grandfather’s–funeral. Cullen, who was born in Japan but raised in America, seems neither fluent in Japanese nor Japan’s funeral customs. Her brevity is telling: “Here’s what I know about the rites to come: They will be Buddhist, complicated, and foreign to my Americanized branch of the family.” Rather than embalmed, the body is kept on dry ice for the long hours of vigil and tribute, and Cullen dabs the deceased’s lips with wet Q-tips to keep them from drying out. As the eldest granddaughter, Cullen kneels in a stiff, silk kimono, serving sake to the string of visitors that come to pay their respects. And that night, she and her brother Ken sleep on futon mats on the floor next to the corpse, the room frigid to preserve the body.
On the day of the funeral, Cullen’s mother becomes obsessed by minutia, insisting that Cullen buy a more somber black dress and that her sister return to the house for her pearls. The experience provides Cullen with yet another angle into the psychology of funerals.
This is a startling change in a woman who flouted generations of ancestral expectation by marrying an American and converting to Catholicism. As I sit the morning of the service trimming Mika’s [Cullen's daughter] nails, she flies at us with a tissue, gathering up the microscopic nail clippings. They would be placed in Opapa’s coffin, she says, to serve as currency in the afterlife.
This chapter, along with an earlier one on a Hmong funeral, provide an expounding look at shifts in funerary customs as the people who comprise American expand. It is not only that Americans want something new and different in the ways they remember their dead. It is also that new Americans want what they once had. Exploring the tensions between the new and the old as the funerary business, like trends in fashion or art, balances matters of innovation and good taste, Cullen’s Remember Me provides an astute take on a particularly American paradox: the simultaneous desire to adhere to ritual while bucking orthodoxy.
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