Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen

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

Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training

Publisher: Da Capo Press
Length: 288 pages
Author: Tom Jokinen
Price: $15.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-03

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.