Before I started writing Son of Death I immersed myself in the literature of death. If I was going to explore topics of death and mortality through a reimagining of the grim reaper, I wanted to consult the experts first.
My first port of call was Ernest Becker, whose Pulitzer-winning book from 1973, The Denial of Death, investigates why and how the Western world does death ‘wrong’. It makes for fascinating – if occasionally dry – reading as it mounts a convincing argument that Western civilisation denies death at its peril, as people cast themselves as ‘heroes’ who resist death to achieve ‘cosmic significance’.
Nowadays, the most visible death-acceptance advocate is a Californian mortician by the name of Caitlin Doughty who runs a YouTube channel called ‘Ask a Mortician‘, wherein she answers questions about corpses, funerals and mortuaries.
On video she’s charming and funny and has done a lot to demystify death and contemporary funeral practices – especially in the US. As research/inspiration for Son of Death I watched all of her videos, read every interview with her that I could find and spent a good amount of time on the website of The Order of the Good Death – an advocacy project which Caitlin is the founding member of.
Since then her insider memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory has been published and it’s eloquent, funny, rage-inducing and important. Happily, it was a hit in the US and is just now hitting bookshelves in Australia and the UK (about time). I note that Caitlin is appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next week and is also sitting on next week’s Q&A panel, which is grand because her message is a good one, deserving of many ears.
To illustrate some of the excellent things Caitlin has to say in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, here are my favourite quotes from the book:
On death and children:
“Exposing a young child to the realities of love and death is far less dangerous than exposing them to the lie of the happy ending.”
On why we don’t like dead bodies:
“Much of our negative reaction to a decomposing corpse like Juan’s is raw instinct. We’ve evolved to be disgusted by things that would hurt us to eat, rotting meat being one of the top contenders”
On Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death, which exposed exploitative aspects of the funeral business:
“It was an admirable thing for Mitford to pull back the ‘formaldehyde curtain’ of embalming and to reveal to the public that behind the scenes the average dead person was ‘in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged, and neatly dressed—transformed from a common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture.'”
On being near dead people:
“It’s more dangerous to your health to fly on an airplane than it is to be in the same room as a corpse.”
On the future of death:
“We cannot possibly live without a relationship to our mortality, and developing secular methods for addressing death will become more critical as each year passes.”
For more there’s a really good extract from Smoke Gets In Your Eyes on Medium. Or you could just buy the book. It’s a good one.