Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre-How We Dignify the Dead
St Martins Press
Creative writing instructors tell us that that all writing is memoir. I’ve noticed that we certainly say the most of all about ourselves when we choose to write about death, whether we are exposing our romantic streak in our fascination with angels, our demand for precision when researching stone carvers or our need for grounding when finding our the burial of our own ancestors. Sarah Murray’s Making an Exit is as personal of a statement as can be.
Murray’s “Fa” kept a file called “How to End It” in his home office. Her dad, a lifelong atheist, had clearly communicated his final wishes to his family, which included scattering part of his remaining “organic matter” at the local churchyard among friends, but not a gathering for remembrance. As comfortable and open as her father was with his own death, Murray’s grief was hers alone to navigate. As the book says, “[a]theism provides little guidance on how to deal with the end of life.” The book is the product of that grieving for her father and subsequent coming to terms with what mourning means in modern British and American culture.
As a journalist for venues like the Financial Times, Murray was already well traveled, but she found in her mourning a reason to set off again. She says, “writers often tell us about places we must see before we die, I want to explore some of the ones we end up in when we’re dead.” Her travels take her to places out of contemporary western death settings. The book follows the classics of travel literature, part anthropology, sociology and self-discovery; in effect an Eat, Pray, Love for the mourner. Her choices of destination and ritual cover a lot of ground, the powerful and the ordinary, the long dead and the newly deceased.
From Capuchin catacombs in Italy, to a Oaxacan Día de los Muerteos to a Ghanaian coffin maker’s shop where she orders a personalized coffin (an Empire State Building in the colors taken from a painting important to her) Murray is really investigating how the interplay of community and mobility has encouraged non traditional final arrangements in her own culture. “Out with the suits and starched shirts of the mortuary men,” Murray writes, “in with Viking- style send-offs, funerary ice cream vans, and minutes of mayhem.” Such rites certainly reflect a cultural emphasis on individualism, as well as a longing for personally meaningful rituals.
Of the locations, it is the small village of Sagada in the Philippines that seems to jar her most. The Sagadan rituals include leaving the body sitting tied to a chair for a few days where family and friends can continue to interact with it (including “having a good yell at the corpse”), ritual pig slaughter and feasting. The disposition of the body itself reflects pre-Christian ritual along with that of slowly encroaching Christianity. The dead are wrapped in ceremonial blankets and placed in sarcophagi positioned in rock fissures or hanging off the cliff walls. Once the dead are installed they are not visited again, for they have ceased to be part of the community.
Murray regards the role of the group in the life of the individual through these practices with a combination of envy and discomfort. She knows full well that in modern societies most of us will die alone. But so much individualism also provokes genuine ambivalence in her, and in the end she is willing to trade a community to bury her for freedom and new discoveries.
On the other hand, she is not so disengaged from her own family and friends to not recognize that funerals are for the living. She has decided to posthumously host a dinner and to have her remains scattered in her favorite places. She has found her own balance between safety and adventure, tradition and modernity.
The joy in reading this book was not in new discoveries of facts; there probably isn’t a lot here that most committed taphophiles won’t have encountered before. Instead, it is Murray’s own discoveries about herself that we find engaging. It would be difficult not to think about some of these issues along with her, fortunately, she makes it rather enjoyable to do.