Tom Jokinen is a radio journalist and producer in Canada. In 2006 he took time off from his job to train as what we in the UK might call a funeral service operative. Why did he do it? Part curiosity: “There’s a time, from when someone dies to when they magically pop up at the funeral or the cemetery or as a bag of ashes that remains a black hole, invisible to the rest of the world, and everyone’s happy with the arrangement.” He wants to find out about that. The other component of his motivation (if it can really be analysed) is temperamental: Tom is of Finnish descent and “Folklore says the only time a Finn ever feels joy is when he’s imagining his own funeral.”
He’s written a book about it: Curtains – Adventures of an undertaker-in-training. It is intelligent and humane. It is full of interesting behind-the-scenes information – the what really goes on – together with thoughts and reflections on life and death (you can’t have one without the other).
He critiques Mitford: “To me, the heart of the debate she left behind is a nagging question: what is the body anyway? Is it charged, mystical, something to be marked and honoured with ceremony and balm, or is it “discarded clothing”?”
He talks about Richard, one of the funeral directors at the funeral home: “he views the undertaker’s role as grief therapist this way: grief therapy is bullshit. The only therapy he provides is to make sure the limo turns up when it’s supposed to, the right hole is opened at the cemetery and the right music is played at the service … There’s no false sympathy and hand-holding, which is how the corporate undertakers mostly play it. They want to be your friend. He wants to be your funeral director.”
He considers the “illusion of vitality” achieved by embalming: “It’s a paradox that Japanese robot builders have been trying to solve. They keep building human replicas that look more and more lifelike … they find that the closer they get to perfection the more frightening the end product appears … The embalmed corpse is an in-between: both a person and an object to fear.”
Tom talks about his own fear of handling dead bodies. His boss “told me to be patient, that my natural fear would evolve into something deeper: respect and awe for the body. We live in a caste system, where the Brahmins subcontract their problems to the unclean, the Dalit caste, the corpse-handlers. In time I’d get used to my social role.” Later, “During a cremation, Glenn shows me how to open up the skull with a iron hook to expose the soft tissue to the open flame, thereby getting a cleaner burn.” Another funeral director tells him “You should respect death and respect the dead, not out of fear, but because it’s the proper human thing to do. He says hospitals have made us ashamed of death. When we die we should all be allowed to leave through the front door, same way we went in.”
He quotes all manner of interesting people: “According to the anthropologist Nigel Barley, the Toraja of Sulawesi wrap their dead tightly in absorbent cloth to preserve them until the next stage of the ritual, which may not come for years. He met a man who kept his dead grandmother in his house as a storage shelf for his collection of alphabetically organized cassette tapes.”
He’s an acute observer. In one funeral home he notices that the pictures on the wall, “like every painting I’ve ever seen in a funeral home, have no people in them.”
He attends a Mennonite funeral: “It’s the same ritual that sent their grandparents and great-grandparents to the sweet home of the happy and free, and when they die, and their kids die, someone will dig a hole and bury them too. There’s a symmetry that’s also oddly liberating in its lack of choice.”
He talks about home funerals. “BT Hathaway, the Massachusetts undertaker … told me it was fine, the home funeral, for the 5 per cent who have money, time, resources, education and political and emotional will. ‘But the average consumer is not so well equipped,’ he said. ‘It’s poetic, but the truth is, I don’t know that many poetic families.’ This of course is the same argument for why people eat at Pizza Hut instead of milling their own wheat and breeding their own pepperoni cattle: why make it hard on yourself?”
He asks his boss: What’s the right thing to do when someone dies? “He thought about it, then said, ‘I don’t know.’ Not the answer I wanted, but after a moment he added, ‘I think you have to struggle with it.’”
Tom’s own conclusion is similar: “A simple act, without the artifice of embalming or baroque funerary product. Just a direct application of body to ground where it’s left to contribute to the great cycle: ashes to ashes and all that, back to Mother Nature in a shroud and a plain wooden box. Instead of deflecting a confrontation of death through commerce, you face it, fill the hole by hand, and then get on with the hard work of mourning, knowing that instead of passively choosing an object from a catalogue and subcontracting the ritual to someone else, you’ve acted, taken a stand, not against dirt but in favour of it. An act with meaning.” In the evening he meets his wife for supper. “I have seen the future,” I tell her. “And it’s Jewish.”
This is a very, very good book. Amazon will gladly send you a copy in exchange for just £9.99. Money well spent. Subsequently, time well spent.