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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.

Erica is a freelance journalist. She writes mostly for the Guardian but has also appeared in The Times, the Mirror, the Debrief and on BBC Radio.
It's been a decade since she graduated with a degree in Philosophy and went to live in Mexico, which she now admits was a weird thing to do. Infrequent visits home saw her dabble in stand-up comedy on the London circuit, but after timing her Masters in journalism to coincide beautifully with the job crisis, she started a humorous, anonymous blog called How to Be Jobless. After eight months of being the voice of the young unemployed, she got hired at the Guardian and lost all credibility.
Now a Londoner displaced with her husband to the Cotswolds, Erica writes from home where she speaks five languages to three cats and a dog, and tweets @ericabuist.

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.


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