A fresh and funny look at what’s new in funerals.
Time magazine staff writer Cullen conducted her personal, on-site survey of funeral rites and after-death practices while pushing her infant daughter along in a stroller or toting her around in a backpack. Here she uses the present and past tense to distinguish between what she observed firsthand and what was described to her by event organizers or by friends or relatives of the deceased. A stroll through a funeral directors’ convention introduces the merchandising of death and personalized services. The roles of funeral directors and party planners have merged into a new profession, Cullen reports: that of funeral planners, who arrange celebrations that bring people together to honor and memorialize the deceased. With cremation gaining popularity, some businesses, such as flower shops and casket-makers, are declining or under threat, and whole new industries are popping up. Cullen visits a woman who has chosen to have her husband’s ashes made into a diamond she can wear; helps a pilot scatter ashes from his plane; and attends a burial at sea for which ashes have been mixed into concrete to form artificial reefs. Other options are freezing and mummification, a process she doesn’t witness but describes graphically. She also observes classes at a New York mortuary school, where she finds that education is not keeping pace with the changes that are sweeping the business. The traditional rituals of a lavish Hmong funeral she attends in Minneapolis are fascinating, yet they are outmatched by her moving account of her Buddhist grandfather’s funeral in Japan. In one unforgettable scene in this often lighthearted book, the author and her family use chopsticks to pick up the recognizable remains of the cremated body, starting with the feet and working upward, and place them in an urn.
While occasionally flippant and straining to be clever, Cullen is mostly an amiable guide, and her tour is enjoyable and enlightening.