CURTAINS by Tom Jokinen


Adventures of An Undertaker-in-Training
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An apprentice undertaker on the ins and outs of the hidden trade.

In this report on the modern funeral industry, Jokinen updates The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford's classic 1963 treatise on the subject. The principal difference between then and now is the skyrocketing popularity of cremation among Baby Boomers, a trend that has had disastrous financial impact on traditional funeral homes. Caskets, plots and funeral services are sold at huge markups, and the relatively cheap option of cremation has hit funeral directors hard. Jokinen examines the strategies employed by the industry to generate new revenue streams, a process that calls into question the very purpose of “death care”—what functions did the old rituals serve, and how do the new ways of disposing of the dead address the spiritual and emotional needs of the living? The author explores these new options, including environmentally conscious “green” funerals, innovations in crematory urns, such as personalized sculptures and huggable teddy-bear receptacles, and chemically induced disintegration of corpses. The book abounds with sickening details about human putrefaction, embalming processes, the grim mechanics of cremation and sundry tricks of the trade—for example, the deceased's clothing is commonly cut down the back and tucked in around the body for a flattering fit. It's easy to feel outrage at the institutionalized venality that characterizes the funeral industry, as emotionally compromised survivors are cannily manipulated into spending thousands of dollars on what are, essentially, unnecessary accoutrements—a simple pine box can do the job as well as a luxurious mahogany casket—but Jokinen elicits a measure of respect for the thoughtful, dedicated funeral directors who place a premium on respect for the departed and the dignity of the final send-off.

An astute, measured look at the modern death-care industry.

Pub Date: March 9th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-306-81891-2
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Da Capo
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2010


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