Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen

by Tara Murtha

27 April 2010

cover art

Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training

Tom Jokinen

(Da Capo Press)
US: Mar 2010

Warning: Many people died in the making of this book. Second warning: It’s hilarious.

Tom Jokinen makes like the anti-Thoreau and spends a year immersed in an unlikely experience with the express purpose of writing about it. Only instead of reflecting on nature, Jokinen explores the unnatural world of undertaking, where businesses earn a living shipping, embalming, grooming, dressing, displaying, burying, and burning our carcasses out of existence. 

Sounds gimmicky, but Jokinen angles a healthy interest in morbidity and zesty, barroom sense of humor to keep the prose flowing as freely as the bullcrap he discovers in an industry still scrambling to survive the fallout of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, the seminal expose of abuses in the funeral industry first published in 1963.

Since the funeral and burial industries took a huge hit after Mitford’s book (undertakers bitterly refer to it as “that book”), Jokinen logically focuses on the new way of death: the cremation industry.

The narrative pinballs between the many roles Jokinen takes on within the industry—hearse driver, embalming assistant, theatrically solemn host who gestures at coat racks and restrooms. All the while, Jokinen dutifully remains the voice of the curious reader, channeling skepticism, the weirds and awe into laugh-out-loud observations grounded in just enough research to provide context without weighing down the plot. 

Jokinen’s main premise is that it’s tough for undertakers to hit profit margins with cremation because if there ain’t nothing to bury, there ain’t nothing to buy. Down and dirty cremation means no embalming, no casket and no burial plot, though undertakers are trying to maintain the casket-burial model in all sorts of creative ways, like building a “Garden of Memories” full of rubber roses to rent out to families who for some reason would want to have their beloved’s remains sitting in a fake flower patch.

The problem is that indie grievers are going renegade, paying discount crematoriums to incinerate the body and then performing “wildcat scatterings”, guerilla missions where a beloved’s ashes are flung off Disneyworld rides or cruise ships. Jokinen reports that so many people smuggle ashes into Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, employees of the Mouse developed a special code alert that announces once again, dead-people dust is everywhere in the machines. Then there’s wacky alternative services, like the one that will convert your body’s carbon into custom pencils—about 240 of them for an average-sized body.

Though Jokinen scoffs at exploitative services, especially the ones designed to sell “memories” or, like with the wedding industry, some sense of prefab “individuality”, he’s also not so sure that a complete absence of ritual altogether is cool either. He’s even queasy about deep discount burns.

“When you’re dealing with a man who’s operating solely on an economic imperative, you’re not dealing with an undertaker,” writes Jokinen. “You’re putting the body in the hand of a canny businessman, where the intangibles like care and respect and dignity don’t necessarily come into play. But does it matter? It might, if the body’s your mother or father or wife.”

Essentially, he wonders, how can we be pragmatic about death without being sterile? How can we be reverent without being religious?

Families don’t know what to do, either. Uncomfortable in churches, they meet undertakers in hotel rooms. Unmoved by church hymns, they want to hear Sarah McLachlan’s songs. One frustrated clergyman Jokinen interviewed couldn’t take it anymore.

The family requested that he say, “God, put on the pot of coffee. Mother’s coming ... ” then blow out a candle. “You don’t need me. This is a theatrical presentation,” the clergyman complained.

That’s just it, isn’t it? If faith is knowing what everything means, drama is expecting that something will happen. Seems most modern families are somewhere in between. They know how to demonstrative performative grief but are uncomfortable with blazing displays of real sorrow. They bicker about what symbol to stamp on the keepsake urn. They want to cultivate reverence but just aren’t religious enough to know to do it.

Taking a cue from Colbert, Jokinen christens “churchiness” to describe the tone the contemporary death industry sells to fill the gap. Churchiness is the essence, but not necessarily presence, of deep-meaning ritual that’s sold to the spiritual-but-not-religious set.

“And of course the whole secular industry uses churchiness as a carrot—you can buy a rosary or Our Lady of Guadalupe trinkets to decorate the corners of your casket at an Alderwoods showroom,” he writes.

We do get out of the crematorium, too. Jokinen whisks us off to bizarre death industry trade shows and to California’s Mill Valley, home of both Jessica Mitford and the no-frills green DIY burial movement. We also tour Colma, a California town that sells San Franciscans their SUVs while they’re alive and then buries them when they’re dead. Strangely enough, we also peek into the funeral of Robert Anton Wilson, the agnostic mystic.

The most poignant place that Jokinen introduces us to isn’t the hot box where bodies bubble to the bones but to Jessica Mitford’s memorial service in 1996. Even though her Wiki page says that Mitford had an inexpensive funeral costing about $500, and that she was cremated without ceremony with her ashes scattered at sea, that’s not the whole story.

“In fact there were five memorials ... including one in London and the family event in San Francisco,” writes Jokinen. “It’s true, six black plumed horses pulled a hearse, followed by a 12-piece marching band: they couldn’t resist.”

That’s just it. Death rituals are for the living, not the dead, and the living will do whatever they damn well please. So technically, yes, because they were memorials and not the actual funeral, the undertakers didn’t make the money from Mitford’s services. Still…

Looking at the death industry from the bereaved family’s point of view, Jokinen writes early on that decisions of what to buy from the death industry is a struggle that exists somewhere between the mind and heart. He can’t answer the question of what’s right for everybody, of course, but he does show us that literally, in the crematorium, the head and heart are the slowest to burn.

Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training


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