A father's last wishes prompt a memoir examining how humans deal with death and the dead.
Financial Times contributor Murray (Movable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat, 2007) uses her father's story as the unifying theme. He wanted to be cremated after his death, his ashes put in a cardboard box and distributed to the winds in the graveyard of the church of St. Mary Magdalene in West Dorset, England. The author writes how his wishes were fulfilled, and the story becomes a centerpiece for discussing some of the traditional celebrations and rituals that accompany death around the world. Murray brings an uncanny eye for detail, incongruity and wit to the narrative, as she chronicles her visits to Iran, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, Ghana and elsewhere. The stories of her exotic travels—traditional ceremonies in Bali, where a royal prince was cremated together with huge and richly decorated paper cows and dragons; and the “seated” burials of the Sagada mountain people of the Philippines—offer stark contrast to the simplicity required to fulfill her father's request. Murray also discusses the technical means associated with funerary practices and their history, such as the way the 600,000 casualties in America's Civil War contributed to the growth of a business embalming corpses, and how cremation developed as the alternative to burial in the UK.
The global riot of activity and information always yields thematically to a quiet return to the contrast with the old graveyard in the Dorset countryside—and the recognition that perhaps to have one's final wishes respected might just be enough for anyone.