No. 19 >> The Death Issue: A lively discussion.

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MAKING THE WORK // Sell Your Cleverness and Buy Bewilderment

“What are you writing about?”

When people ask this question of writers, what they likely want to hear about is plot. So, if you’re writing Hamlet they’d want to hear: a man who's father is killed by his scheming uncle who takes over the man's father's throne and his bedroom. 

The problem is that there’s what’s it about (see above) and then there’s what’s it really about? The latter is the question we fear we’re actually being asked because it’s the one we’re obsessing over. (My friend Ayelet says she finds herself asking her husband all the time, “So, what do you think my book is about?”) But, if we were to take a Hamlet-like stab (perhaps risking missing the mark) and say that the work is a very long reflection on decision/indecision and existence/non-existence and blah blah woof woof, they’d likely glaze over.  

A., when asked at parties what his work is about, is very good at playing the charming, bumbling writer. “Let me get back to you on that,” he’ll say with a big chummy laugh. He then deploys the “look over there” technique and points to the snacks.

I, on the other hand, have always reacted to the question like I might react to being asked, say, when my last period was, or if I prefer reverse or front cowgirl. Because my book is autobiographical, the question just feels embarrassing and too personal to answer. (And yes, I’m aware that that’s oxymoronic because, presumably, one writes a book to be read.) Plus, it’s weird to cheerfully answer, “Death and grief! But it’s also funny. And sad. Really sad. And funny. But balanced because it’s serious too. Funny-sad.” (See how awkward that was?)

The question feels trivializing. “Writers don’t want to have to give a reductive answer when they’re in an expansive process,” A. says.

I asked writer friends how they handle the question and my friend Elaine Avila, who’s a smart playwright, had a lovely response. “Because Rumi says, ‘sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment,’” she says, “I actually try to prepare a compelling, pithy, one sentence description as a cocktail party type shield. This allows me to have massive bewilderment at home, and stumble over myself a little bit less in public.” She also says, “I love it if I get to sit and have heartfelt talk and transcend the whole thing.”

In that spirit, and to practice, I’ve prepared an answer here for you that goes slightly beyond a one sentence shield:

Before there was A., there was a man who I loved and he died. After that, there was another man who I loved and he is dead now too. My book—which started out as a ‘novel from life’—is now a collection of linked essays about death and grief, as experienced in a death-phobic, secular society. Some of the essays are more personal than others, like the one about what it was like to have two jobs, one as a gingerbread man mascot, and the other as a nightclub bouncer, while still deep in grief. Other essays are about death and pop culture, like what one might learn watching Truly, Madly, Deeply and Ghost, or from contemplating River Phoenix’s death photo. I’m still figuring out the big what's it really about, but I think it has to do with how when someone we love dies we’re left with the questions: who am I now and what choices do I have?

CULTURE // The Order of the Good Death

When I was a griever, one thing that surprised me—especially because I’m squeamish—was my preoccupation with what happened to a body after death. 

I remember waking from a dream where I was at a spelling bee. Alone on a stage, under a too-bright spotlight that made my brain sweat, I was asked to spell “crematorium.” Finally, I gave my answer: C-R-E-A-M-A-T-O-R-I-U-M.

Zzzzrrtt. Wrong. Crem—not cream—atorium. 

I got up and Googled “crematorium” just to be doubly sure of the spelling. One link led to another and that’s how I ended up watching a YouTube video of eighteen men with bandanas, scissor-hemmed shirts, and plenty of tattoos building a cremation retort, accompanied by a hardcore soundtrack like it was a show on wrestling or something happening at a monster dome. 

I’d wished that there’d been a trusted resource for the questions I had about, say, cremation, but I was hard-pressed to find one with the kind of sensitivity I was looking for. Now, there’s The Order of the Good Death website. The Order of the Good Death “is a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” The Order was founded in January 2011 by Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and writer in Los Angeles. Doughty is also known for her fun and friendly YouTube series, Ask a Mortician. In short, “The Order is about making death a part of your life.”

The message to visitors to The Order’s website, which includes a lively blog, is that there’s nothing wrong with being interested in death. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are ‘sick’ or ‘morbid’ or ‘deviant,’” we’re told. Overall, the website has a healthy, gothic sense of humour aimed at taking the fear out of death, “whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above.”

One of the best—and most comforting—passages from the website comes from an article on “Natural Burial and Embracing Decay.” It says that decomposition “is the science of sending back everything the universe loaned you. The universe will reuse it as it sees fit. Perhaps to help make an eggplant or an aardvark or perhaps even to make other, new humans.” 

WATCHING // The Book of Life

Imagine The Nightmare Before Christmas with a candy-skull aesthetic, and you can picture The Book of Life, a new animated film, in theatres now, produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez. The movie takes place on the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, and is the story of a love triangle that becomes the subject of a wager between the rulers of the two lands of the afterlife. Of a particularly awesome note is that the soundtrack is made up of mariachi covers of songs like Mumford & Sons’  “I Will Wait For You” and Radiohead’s “Creep” (you can hear the latter here).

There’s a touching story behind the film. When Guiterrez was a kidlet in Mexico City his best friend died. He was angry at the world, so his mother taught him about the Day of the Dead. Gutierrez says his mother told him, “Your friend is here. As long as you talk about him, as long as you keep his name with you and you talk about him, you invite him to your birthday party, he’ll be here.” So, he says, “that’s what I did every year for my birthday and eventually he was my best man in my wedding. [I] just got married on The Day of the Dead so he could be there. Every time I worked on the movie it was with him by my side, and the movie is dedicated to him.”