[12 September 2006]
In 2003, journalist Lisa Takeuchi Cullen was commissioned by her editors at Time Magazine to look into new trends in funeral services. In Remember Me, the book that emerged from her assignment, Cullen takes a look at the ways Americans today, and baby-boomers in particular, are “re-inventing the rites of dying.”
Interestingly, considering its subject, the book has been heavily pushed. Collins, the imprint responsible for Remember Me, apparently decided to forgo a traditional print-based publicity campaign, and, instead, the book has been widely promoted online, as well as through the usual radio interviews and book signings. There’s an author website where you can download Remember Me e-cards featuring pictures of the cemeteries Cullen visited; an author blog and discussion board, and downloadable banners. In addition, e-ads for the book have appeared on mediabistro.com and bookseller sites, and review copies dispatched to all the hundreds of bloggers who write about books. The production process seems to have been super streamlined, too. In one chapter, the author goes to the funeral of someone who died in August 2005. OK, so the book feels hot off the press, but with only a year between the actual events and the books’ release—less than 12 months for all that writing, re-writing, revision, editing, fact-checking, and proofreading, not to mention all the marketing and promotion—I can’t help finding the rush a little unnerving. Funeral-baked meats, anyone?
So what’s all the fuss about? What’s new in the world of death? Well, sheer numbers, for one thing. Around 2.3 million Americans will die in the coming year, and, as the population ages, this number could actually double by 2040. Diversity is another—the U.S. has a greater range of cultures, religions, and traditions than ever before. With caskets being sold at Costco and FuneralDepot.com, with cremation becoming all the rage, and with the Internet offering custom funerals, does anyone actually still get buried in the old-fashioned way?
If they do, it’s certainly no longer their only option. You don’t have to look far to find an alternative, suggesting that death, to a certain degree at least, is no longer monopolized by the funeral mafia. In fact, there’s a lively market for more up-to-date options, many of them clever and creative. Instead of being stowed away six foot under, for instance, your dear old Ma could be turned into a diamond and set in a ring by LifeGem (a great idea, but then, would you ever dare wear it, and risk losing what’s left of your mother—along with $2,500 to $14,000 worth of diamond—down the waste disposal?). If Pa liked to fish, you could have his cremains mixed into organic faux-coral by Eternal Reefs and dropped in the sea, making him a thriving home for marine life (at a price between $2,000 and $5,000). Eternal Reefs are just one among many options in the emerging tradition of “green” burials, in which your body goes out of the world just as it came in, without a big, expensive casket or any fancy trappings. Burying bodies in such a way that they’ll quickly decompose and feed the ecosystem sounds so obvious and natural you wonder that it wasn’t thought of many years ago. (In fact, it was. “Sky burial,” as it’s sometimes known, is a ritual that’s been practiced for hundreds of years in Tibet, where the corpse is cut into pieces and left on top of a mountain, to be consumed by vultures.)
Cullen’s journey takes her to such places as a schools of Mortuary Science in New Jersey, a Hmong funeral in Minnesota, an airplane ride to scatter cremains across the sky courtesy of Last Wish, Inc., and a mobile casket showroom, featuring the “Dimensions” line for today’s plus-size loved ones. Her account is peppered with stories of the recently deceased, including her own Japanese grandmother, and descriptions of how their families mourn or celebrate their deaths.
Too many of the book’s chapters, however, are taken up by investigations into “wacky new trends” and one-off schemes. Not too many baby boomers, surely, are going to opt to be cryogenically frozen, or mummified (at a cost of $63,000), put in a NASCAR coffin, stored on dry ice in a shed in Colorado, or plastinated and put on show by Gunther Van Haagens. In these places, the author resorts to descriptions of some loveable but quirky characters whose view of death is odd, but, the author implies, still rather endearing.
This is too bad. Her subtitle made me hope that Cullen’s book would revisit the ground shoveled up by Jessica Mitford in her groundbreaking, muckraking exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death (1963). As Cullen hastens to assure us, however, that’s not what she wants to do. In fact, she makes a point of stressing that her aim is not a debunking of the funeral industry. Instead, she explains, she’s simply out to take a lively look at the state of death options for today’s baby boomers and their families. Fair enough, but nonetheless, in some of the chapters, I couldn’t help longing to know what Mitford would have made of these characters, whom Cullen invariably finds “surprisingly likable”. Nor could I help missing Mitford’s cynical, laconic voice, especially in the face of Cullen’s overbearing, early-morning perkiness, as the chipper young journalist touts her newborn around funeral directors conventions and casket displays.
For a light read about American funerals today, Remember Me is a perfectly engaging book, but if you have a serious interest in the subject, I’d suggest you ignore the hype and get hold of a copy of Mitford’s classic instead. In addition, bear in mind that hundreds of people are buried every day in the U.S. with no funeral at all, often because they die alone, unmourned, with no friends or family. These cases are the subject of Grover Babock and Blue Hadaegh’s 2003 documentary A Certain Kind of Death, an account of forgotten lives that makes a disturbing contrast to Remember Me. In this film, we’re shown what happens when the unclaimed body is dealt with—the attempt to track down any surviving family by the coroner’s office (which has hundreds of similar cases to deal with), the lonely cremation, the mundane disposition of personal effects. In contrast to this, Cullen’s book seems trifling and rather superfluous, like a decorative emblem on a casket.