Humans are the only creatures that know they're going to die. While the realization has given us upright-walkers that charming, angsty quality so loved by cafe intellectuals in Paris, it's also triggered fits of dread and panic throughout the ages. Let's face it -- other than at Halloween, or near high school goths' lockers, death is the last thing anyone really wants to talk about. It's the elephant in the room of life, conspicuous but ignored. Nonetheless, it's all around us, all the time, in our words.
Our underlying fascination with death is made clear by the large number of terms we use for it: fatality, the big sleep, eternal rest, final exit, final repose, passing away, crossing over, taps, curtains for one, the celestial discharge, the big jump, the last roundup. And we don't just die, we kick the bucket, buy the farm, push up daisies, meet our maker, take a dirt nap, cross the River Styx, pay the last debt, sprout wings, head for cold storage, punch our ticket, cash in the chips, slip the cable, join the Choir Invisible, go into the fertilizer business, give up the ghost, flatline, bite the big one, wear the wooden overcoat, and buy the pine condo. So many words for the supposedly unspeakable.
Of course, it's not unspeakable, and seemingly to prove it, more books than ever about death have hit bookshelves in the past few years, beginning with Sherwin Nuland's well-received How We Die in 1995, and culminating in the best-seller status of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach a couple of years ago. Now, two new books add to this morbid trend.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen's Remember Me, which began as a Time Magazine story on new funeral service trends, looks at how Americans today -- mostly baby boomers with an apparent itch to plan every step of their consumerist journey -- are changing the ways in which people are, um, disposed of.
According to Cullen, Americans everywhere are personalizing their post-life ceremonies. Today, cremation is way popular -- or as "popular" as a death-related activity can be -- and consumers are faced with more postmortem options than ever, including buying their caskets at Costco. The fastest-growing change in U.S. burial habits, according to Remember Me, is the trend toward "green burials," in which the bodies decompose quickly and benefit the ecosystem.
If that's too sedate for you, then how about a themed funeral? Cullen talks to people who've given their loved ones themed interments with tango, Harley-Davidson, or even Hawaiian motifs, and I'm sure she must have missed an Elvis-themed burial or two. The author makes the rounds, from digging up -- oops, sorry -- finding people who wish to go underground in caskets resembling various beer can designs, to flying in a small plane with Last Wish, Inc., scattering ashes across the sky.
The variety of caskets now took me by surprise. Racing fans might want to check out www.artcaskets.com for the tasteful, checkered flag-decorated, "The Race Is Over" coffin. That's assuming, of course, they don't want the golfing-themed, "Fairway to Heaven" casket, or the one covered with a scene of the Last Supper.
If none of these options is classy enough for you, why not turn your hubby into a "human diamond," made from his ashes, set in a ring by the LifeGem company? Or, if Grandma loved fishing, you can see that she spends the sweet hereafter among marine life, by hiring the Eternal Reefs folks to mix her ashes into an organic pseudo-coral and lower her into the sea.
Cullen makes the rounds, from a casket showroom featuring the "Dimensions" line for plus-size kin, to a Colorado town that celebrates a hometown cryogenics trailblazer with its Frozen Dead Guy Days Festival. Cullen is a breezy writer, which, needless to say, is just as well considering the topic.
Michael Largo's approach in Final Exits is as much that of a reporter as Cullen's, but he's organized his research into an A-to-Z format. The book, unfortunately, is a mess. Largo lists a wealth of ways we can die, gives accounts of people who died in unusual ways, and accompanies many of the entries with kitschy illustrations, which works well visually. Methods of dying range from cult murders and epidemics to flesh-eating viruses and being crushed by a vending machine, so this should have been a compelling book. But Largo's work evinces the feeling of notebook-purging and last-minute, haphazard entries grabbed as space-fillers as the book was rushed into production. If you only want to buy one death book this fall, make it Remember Me.