Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals
Everybody dies, and in this book, my father-in-law Chris dies at the very beginning. By the time we found him, he’d been dead for eight days.
While my husband Dion managed his grief with almost heroic grace and poise, I descended into a bout of pyjama-clad agoraphobia. I stalked friends online to ascertain that they were still alive, thinking I was the only genius who’d noticed that when people die they do so without consulting you. Eventually, I tried to cure myself by going out to buy a sandwich in a Crouch End supermarket. Whoever you are, nice lady who approached me trying to offer a discount on Jaffa Cakes, I’m sorry I treated you like a you were a toothless demon growling “GIVE ME A KISS”. I’m sorry I spluttered, “No!” and threw the sandwich down and ran home. It wasn’t you. Or the Jaffa Cakes. I love Jaffa Cakes, and I'm sure you're also lovely.
Back at my kitchen table, I thought back to the Day of the Dead festivities I saw during my two years living in Mexico, where people openly claimed not to be afraid of death. Why can’t I do that? Psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom said, “Adults who are racked with death anxiety are not odd birds who have contracted some exotic disease, but men and women whose family and culture have failed to knit the proper protective clothing for them to withstand the icy chill of mortality.” He’s blaming you, Mum. And you, Britain. Is Yalom right? Was it my upbringing here in Britain, where we avoid direct mention of death, that made me throw a sandwich in a supermarket? It’s hard to dismiss out of hand – when people started meeting up to talk about death in the form of "death cafes", that made the news. People openly discussing death makes HEADLINES in this country.
Or is it me? Why don’t I have the protective clothing to ward off the icy chill of mortality? And where can I get it? Do they make it in my size?
I decided to visit death festivals, or “deathtivals”, to try to understand how other people deal with mortal terror, how they get from the knowledge that they’re going to die, to living happily day to day. I’m going to explore places where they respond to death by throwing a party, not a sandwich.
In this book, following the thread of the deathtivals and with a cast of strange characters, I explore countless questions about our dealings with death anxiety. How does knowledge of our mortality make us act like jerks? Do you need to be religious to reduce mortal terror? Why is this New Orleans voodoo priestess talking to a doll thirty seconds into our interview? Why did a man in Derby keep his wife’s corpse in the bedroom? Does death anxiety really make us more racist, and men more amenable to violence against women? What’s the etiquette around mentioning zombies when people are exhuming their loved ones? Is it ok to take a selfie with a skull? Do older people in California really believe an $8,000 injection of teenagers’ plasma will re-colour their grey hair? And why is California the global centre for people trying to outsmart death?
Seven deathtivals. One for every day we didn’t find Chris.
Come with me.
Introduction: the Jam Jar
“Everybody just pretend to be normal.” – Little Miss Sunshine
I step out of the cold sunshine into my all-different-now office. The revolving door is mercifully slow, which gives me time to wonder whether I’ll go full circle and run for it. I’m still deciding when I notice I’ve already made it through. On the escalator, I do a quick mental run-down of who knows about what happened last Tuesday. There’s my boss, Malik…actually, that’s probably it. I doubt he told anyone else. He’s busy, and anyway it’s customary to treat a death as private, like the first trimester of pregnancy or prostate troubles. As if it isn’t announced in the paper. As if a no-longer-existent human isn’t something we’ll all have to acknowledge at some point. As if bereaved people want to be asked by disgruntled colleagues, “Where have you been, bloody part-timer? Off on holiday again?” Oh, please, let me have that conversation. I’m just dying to cause that excruciating pause.
There are no death festivals in winter. Off-season's greetings!
Tuesday, 6 November 2018
Can you imagine how terrifying autumn must have been to early man, seeing as God has apparently decided he's done and that everything can just die now? No wonder that period is packed with death festivals, they were probably bargaining not to be next. What I'm saying is: as far as I know, there are no death festivals in winter. I guess no one ever thought to have once since by that point everything…
A death festival in Sicily (insert obligatory Godfather quote here)
Tuesday, 16 October 2018
I am so on theme with my non-round-numbers roundup. It's day 201 of crowdfunding THIS PARTY'S DEAD, I have 179 backers and the funding is at 34%. All horrible uneven numbers. In case the title and the enormous video at the top weren't clear, this update will be about my upcoming trip to Palermo, Sicily. On Sunday I will once again be leaving my dog (and husband) for a death festival, this time in…
Sunday, 16 September 2018
Greetings from Vermont, where I am being all lovely and liberal while sitting in a vat of maple syrup. Obviously.
What I'm actually doing is spending a month walking from my room to the food hall to my writing studio at Vermont Studio Center, the largest artist residency in the US. There are 50 of us. We applied, we got in, we write all day, and sometimes we do karaoke. If you're so inclined, you…
It’s not pronounced ‘nipple’
Thursday, 23 August 2018
Probably didn’t need to tell you that; none of you are Donald Trump, after all.
Hello from Nepal, is what I’m trying to say.
I'm writing to you from the attic room of a 200-year-old Newari house in the Kathmandu Valley. I’m here for Gai Jatra, my second death festival: it’s a procession of people who’ve lost someone this year, led by a cow. If a cow isn’t available, “a boy dressed as a cow…
A quarter of the way there!
Monday, 16 July 2018
Hello readers! As you know, I like round numbers, but don't like them to be the boss of me, so here is my 24% update.
Here's what's happening behind the scenes of THIS PARTY'S DEAD:
- I've just had an article featured at the top of Medium detailing three death movements that are booming in the west, all with strikingly uniform demographics - followers of Santa Muerte are overwhelmingly…
Biscotti, chocolate and dead people (this is how I say hi)
Wednesday, 9 May 2018
I was going to do an update when I reached 20%, but then I remembered that pleasing round numbers aren’t the boss of me, so here is my 19% update.
I just want to say thank you SO much for pledging for This Party's Dead, and in return here are some behind-the-scenes tidbits:
☻ Those of you who pledged to have me bake you traditional Sicilian ‘bones of the dead’ biscotti,…
These people are helping to fund THIS PARTY’S DEAD.