May 25, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In Curtains, Tom Jokinen recounts his nine months working for a funeral home, and along the way vividly portrays the changing funeral industry while also providing a poignant exploration of how society deals with death.
The Globe and Mail wrote of the book:
"For this, finally, is not a book about conclusions but about the pleasures of good writing, close observation, a thoughtful voice, a well-told story, a loving if skeptical take on reality, a detailed sense of irony and humour, a thirst for exploration. In all, it is a fine piece of work and a fitting tribute to the thoughtful and intelligent prairie undertaker, Neil Bardal, whose life the book chronicles and who, just before the book’s publication, died of prostate cancer in Winnipeg."
Curtains was meant to be a bit of old-school immersion journalism, but I prefer what one blogger called it: a "stunt memoir". I quit my cushy job in radio and TV with CBC, Canada's national broadcaster, to work for eight months as an undertaker's apprentice in a family-owned Winnipeg funeral home and crematorium, learning to dress, carry, embalm cremate and bury the dead, not always in that order. Who knew that purple lipstick looks more natural than red lipstick, especially on men? The business is going through a sea change, thanks to the cremation revolution and the upcoming demographic wave, 75-million baby boomers who are intent to go out with flash and flair, and without the solemn church service. They don't want their grandparents' funerals, and the undertakers know it. But nuts, bolts and commerce aside Curtains is also a look at how we deal with the chaos and heartbreak of death without religion or ritual to guide us, in a time when it's kosher to pack one's cremated remains into a plush teddy bear (the so-called Huggable Urn, $95 or $145 with angel wings) or have them blown off as fireworks. Music used to play a role in ritual, the hymns and requiems that accompanied the dead to their rest, but in modern funeral homes you're apt to hear "Wind Beneath My Wings", daily, as I did, arguably a fate worse than the corpse's. I didn't listen to music when I worked (too dangerous to operate a 1600-degree cremation retort with the iPod in play) and I couldn't listen to music while I wrote the book (the anxiety of influence… I'm easily distracted by shiny objects and other people's lyrics), but in the off-hours, in the dark, music became the soundtrack to the movie in my head that eventually became the scenes in the book, if you follow.
"Hang Out" - Thurston Moore
I got used to living in self-imposed social exile, a member of the untouchable caste. People hesitated before they shook my hand when I told them where I worked. There's a rule when you're on what they call a "removal", picking up the body from the hospital in the gothed-up delivery van: never stop for a coffee at Tim Horton's, not even the drive-thru, since it's undignified and bad for the brand to insinuate yourself into the normal working world when you're "carrying". I think Thurston Moore, when he's sprung from the art-school noise of Sonic Youth, writes tiny perfect pop songs for outcasts: neither angry nor aggressive, just marginal and more or less satisfied to be misunderstood. That pretty much sums up the undertaker's life.
"(Past Due)" - The Weakerthans
Local boys, Winnipeg's best cultural export alongside Guy Maddin, who also gets how uncanny and haunted this city is, where there are more funeral homes than Starbucks'. "(Past Due)" is a love-letter to the obits in the local Saturday paper, usually written by family, detailed, sometimes awkward but rich as small Russian novels, with photos that often hide more than they show, "His tiny feet, that birthmark on her knee." In the end, it says, there's nothing to fear: no matter how messed up your life is, it will all make sense when they come to write your Winnipeg Free-Press obituary.
"Fado Armandinho" – Madelena De Melo
Before my mini-career in the "deathcare sector", I'd never heard of Fado, a kind of Portuguese blues or soul informed by what Federico Garcia Lorca called "duende", or the dark flipside to divine inspiration, a kind of death-as-muse. Lorca said the duende comes not from above, from the angels, but burns up from the earth through the feet of the artist. It's what separates hardcore flamenco from, say, square dancing. And why not? Europeans have a more mature relationship with death, joining with it in art, rather than living in sweet, giddy denial, which is the North American way. No wonder we sub-contract death to the private sector, for bags of money: our Disney culture has no room for the duende.
"Jesus Loves Me" – Cocorosie
Let me now contradict what I just said. CocoRosie has duende, or at least an ironic American T-shirt knock-off duende, enough to pass in dim light. It helps that CocoRosie are sisters, which inspires what Freud called the uncanny: the double disturbs, the way the embalmed corpse because it's a double for the once-breathing person who's now… where exactly? I imagine having "Jesus Loves Me" played at my own funeral, perhaps after a more formal Catholic mass: "Cover them freckles, don't ask don't tell / Kiss your papa but not too long / Hold his hands, don't do no wrong." The sisters got something dark going on here, bless them. I'm a Finn and they say the only time a Finn knows joy is when he's imagining his own funeral, and I like imagining the music they'll play.
"Close to the Edit" – Art of Noise
Another funeral song. I imagine the afterlife will look like the old MTV video for this song: men in goggles and a dwarf girl in too much barrelhouse make-up taking a chainsaw to a piano.
"Bethena (A Concert Waltz)" – Randy Kerber (from the Benjamin Button soundtrack)
My boss at the funeral home, Neil Bardal, a third-generation undertaker who himself died just a few months ago, told me that there's honour in a profession that not only handles the dead but delivers families to some kind of ritual,, any kind of ritual, even if it's improvised. People need ritual. The problem is we've lost touch with tradition, so we throw money at the problem when all we need to do is to see the body or the ashes into the ground to feel like we've done the right thing. To unwinde, Neil would play ragtime on the funeral home's grand piano, slowly, the way Scott Joplin said it should be played. "Bethana" was his favourite.
"Rebellion (Lies)" – Arcade Fire
I struggled with putting this one on the list. It's a bit on-the-nose (the album's called Funeral for heaven's sake) and just because a band has a hurdy-gurdy player and the girls dress up in black lace like an emo-era Stevie Nicks does not necessarily give them duende, but that thrumming refrain: "every time you close your eyes, every time you close your eyes, every time you close your eyes…" it's an Edward Gorey ink drawing, a memento mori that reminds me that one day I won't wake up. So what do I do with this information? I spend a lot of time on Twitter telling strangers what I ate for lunch. It's a full, rich life, made more so by its urgency.
"We All Lose One Another" - Jason Collett
"This is birth and this is death
All in the same breath
We all lose one another along the way"
Dressing a corpse is like putting a sweater on a tree. The dead are uncooperative and it's embarrassing how hopeless we all are when we're gone, when there's no spark to animate, when we're at the mercy of gravity and brute force and the stranger who puts us into the suit we'll wear into the grave. It's come to the point where I can't tie my own necktie unless I'm lying down. But taking care of the dead is as natural and human as taking care of a baby, if you look at it slant. Here Jason, part of the great musico-industrial complex that is Broken Social Scene, sings that birth and death and love and loss happen, there it is. Would you prefer it some other way?
"Stormy Weather" - The Pixies
"Oh ho, it is time for stormy weather." That's it, the sum total of lyrics to a song about getting up every morning to going to work, coming home, washing your dusty crematorium clothes with white handprints and scrubbing your own red hands, again, watching The Office whilst eating a burrito with your wife, sleeping and dreaming about fire and doing it again. This too I'll play at my funeral, in lieu of "Wind Beneath My Wings".
Tom Jokinen and Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training links:
The Book Lady's Blog review
Daisy's Book Journal review
Experiments in Reading review
Globe and Mail review
The Kids Are Alright review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal
Pacific Northwest Inlander review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review
Stack of Spines review
T-Dot Blogger Book Club review
Townsville Bulletin review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists