Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
Death: the goodie bag everyone gets for attending the party of life. And we are, every single one of us, slightly obsessed with it. This is the second nonfiction death book I’ve read, the first being Stiff by Mary Roach (read that one. Read this one, too.)
Cullen (and the irony of her last name is not lost on me) treats America’s relationship with death the way a theology student treats religions. They are almost all reputable and respectful and beautiful... and eventually, you’re going to have to pick one. Unlike Stiff, Remember Me steers clear of the science of death - concerned only with what happens to the body as affects the living, and only with history when it shows up as tradition in modern practice - from the guy who is mummifying people in a pyramid in Utah to the first person to have a loved one’s ashes turned into a diamond. She takes us to a funeral directors convention where we learn that directors are starting to call themselves “planners” as more and more people request parties rather than the traditional, somber services. (In fact, what becomes a recurring theme is that Americans have lots and lots of postmortem requests. Just as we strive in life to set ourselves apart from the crowd and mark our individuality, we are doing the same in death - in greater and greater numbers.) And then we go to Colorado to celebrate Frozen Dead Guy Days. You’ll have to read the book for details...but I’m planning a trip next year, if only for the coffin races. The book takes us all the way through plastination and aerial ash-scattering to the education of the next generation of funeral directors and then one last traditional ceremony.
Cullen doesn’t just focus on the extremes - very traditional and very wacky - she also introduces us to the sweet, simple alternatives. In South Carolina there is a land preserve run by a single couple, where the recently deceased are placed in biodegradable cardboard boxes and buried three feet deep, so as to act as actual fertilizer as they decompose. On either coast there is a company that will take your cremains (industry-speak for ashes) and mix them into concrete molds and place them in rebuilding sites to become artificial reefs. And yes, you can even have your cremains turned into diamonds.
To temper the reactions to such unorthodox burial practices, Cullen introduces us to the people who chose these paths. She gives us touching obituaries that read like mini-biographies. When told from that point of view, these after-life options seem, if not the right choice for you, at least palatable and respectful.
Cullen leaves us with a few well-chosen thoughts on how her own life was touched by the life celebrations she witnessed on her tour. Not just her life, though, I felt enlightened and moved, and full of the conviction that I will live another seventy years (deathclock.com, if you want her other resources, read the book) but when I go, I know exactly what is to be done with my remains so that my loved ones will be reminded not that I am gone, but that I lived. Which is really what we all want, isn’t it?