October 2006

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

When I first read it, several years ago, I absolutely loved Jessica Mitford’s now legendary smack-down of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death (first published in 1963).
 
Imagine my disappointment, then, when I picked up Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death, only to be greeted with Cullen’s early admission: “Let me say that I am not Jessica Mitford.” It was going to be no small task, after that, for Cullen to win back my favor. Over the course of 218 pages, several examples of types of memorials and rituals, and numerous personal interviews and research citations, though, win it back she did.
 
By her own admission, Cullen, a staff writer for Time magazine, did not set out to expose the hucksterism of American funeral directors and their industry, as Jessica Mitford had four decades previously. This is a kinder, gentler book than Mitford’s, but that doesn’t mean it is slight. Cullen attended funeral industry conventions, met with the founders of a “green” cemetery, interviewed families who chose to have the cremated remains (cremains) of their loved ones turned into diamonds, traveled to the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Colorado, and noted the cultural differences among a stereotypical American funeral, a Hmong funeral, and the funeral of her own Japanese grandfather in Tokyo. 
 
Throughout her narrative Cullen provides both facts (in 2003, 25 percent of Americans who died were cremated; by 2025, it’ll be 48 percent) and character portraits (“Peggy greets me politely, if guardedly. She is tiny, bespectacled, and dressed in a black turtleneck and long black skirt. She embodies my image of a Broadway voice teacher, which is what she is…”) with ease. Although her focus is emphatically on the “lively” aspect of death rituals and options for the disposal of our earthly remains, she doesn’t completely avoid the purely pecuniary issues. In her chapter outlining her experiences at the industry convention, she attends sessions designed to help directors become social event and funeral “planners” in order to diversify their business; a chapter on a Salt Lake City mummification business lists the price tag for that service at $63,000; two women she meets while observing classes at a mortuary school tell her they’ll be spending $1.3 million to build a funeral home and business of their own.
 
The result is a thoughtful book, and one that examines not only what it costs to bury or otherwise memorialize a loved one, but also to what lengths the living will go to remember and honor their dead.  Cullen’s book may be about death, but her stories are really about life, and how she eventually “saw that Euripides was right: Never that which is shall die” (p. 209). 
 
Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death, by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
HarperCollins
ISBN: 0060766832
240 pages