First thing: Everything's okay with me. Yes, the winters are long and gloomy in the Pacific Northwest, and there is much uncertainty in the world. Our futures are forever unknown, and that's fine. But I noticed that Caitlin Doughty has a new book coming out this fall: Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death. This isn't her first trip into the twisty catacombs of morbid rumination; in fact, she's built a career of it with books like From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death (see below) and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. (A second career, that is. She's a mortician in the daytime, or whenever.) That started my own contemplation over just how many books we've seen lately that contemplate the ultimate. Not feel-good redemption narratives like Tuesdays with Morrie (even if its title hides a frank intent in plain sight), but books that confront death straight on, in attempts to take some sting out of the mortal rigmarole. Are we becoming less uneasy with the particulars? Publishers seem to think so. Here are five relatively recent examples with perspectives ranging from corporeal to cultural—and even one about housecleaning, because there's one guest none of us can turn away.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
In her campy web series “Ask a Mortician,” best-selling author Caitlin Doughty fields some pretty intense questions from her more than 200,000 subscribers. Queries run the gamut from “How long does rigor mortis last?” to “What happens to titanium hips during cremation?” Funny and frank, Doughty addresses each one with in-depth knowledge, kitschy graphics, and a bit of gallows humor. In From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Doughty goes in search of funerary rituals that reflect a more open acknowledgment of the end.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
In the most basic, physical sense, we've perfected the art hiding death away—at least in this country. But that's a disservice to the cadaver and all of its contributions to science, industry, and society. In Stiff, Roach—who has made a career out of exploring topics utterly unfit for cocktail parties, family gatherings, and any other event requiring even a base level of decorum—raises the roof (and the dead) in celebration the corpse's contributions, including guillotine quality control, surgical breakthroughs, and space travel.
We're all gonna die! Not to be shrill, but it's true. So in the same way that we buy guidebooks for European vacations or tax prep manuals, couldn't we use a good how-to on facing the end of the line? Tisdale, a nurse who spent more than a decade in palliative care, has seen it all from the heartbreaking to the joyful to the absurd, all presented in this practical, reassuring user's guide for us, the future dead.
It's a classic, all-American tableau: A man in his aging father's workshop, the elder passing along his wisdom of life though the metaphor of woodworking as they labor together to build... a casket. If that memento wasn't mori enough, the unexpected deaths of Giffels's mother and best friend threw the project into sharp relief. Sounds dark, yes? But as one Amazon commenter says, "Don't let the coffin part throw you off!" Furnishing Eternity chooses to face the hard questions with a spirit of humor and hope, like that Flaming Lips song.
The goal of “death cleaning” is simple: Ridding yourself of unwanted, unneeded possessions before your demise saves your survivors the chore of dealing with your stuff. And when your time does come, think of all the posthumous embarrassment you’ll avoid. Imagine your children rifling through love letters from your first girlfriend, when you can happily (and probably less shamefully, in edited versions) store your adolescent pinings in memory. Likewise, shoe boxes of old greeting cards, cocktail umbrellas collected across a lifetime of vacations, or a box of binder-clips and rubber bands kept for no sane reason.
(Maybe I do need help.)
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- "We Should Have Brought More Pemmican" (Polar Voyages Gone Wrong)
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