THIS PARTY’S DEAD
By Erica Buist
Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals
Publication date: February 2021Support this project
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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.
This design is for illustrative purposes only and is subject to change
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.
- 29th July 2020 This Party's Dead: Cover Reveal
I am excited to say I've just been sent the cover design for This Party's Dead, and I wanted you early pre-orderers to be the first to see it.
Isn't it pretty?!
The cartoon is the work of Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. He was the first to draw skeletons wearing clothes and partying, and later Diego Rivera started using the image in his murals, which led…2nd May 2020 The Death Lollipop Lady
So, this is weird. We're all locked down, facing our mortality on a daily basis, many of us coping by becoming Really Very Serious about sourdough. One thing no one seems to be doing to cope is having the, "if I die" conversation. Below is an interview with the brilliant Amy Pickard, who runs Good To Go, a "get-your-shit-together-before-you-die" business. No one likes a death reminder…21st March 2020 An interview with Jesse Karmazin: the doctor who is injecting his older patients with teenage plasma
Hello, preorderers of This Party's Dead! I hope you're all keeping safe and well, and that this intense and seemingly unrelenting death reminder we're all experiencing hasn't turned you or anyone you know into a quivering wreck. I have attached a picture of my dog for those of you who will be comforted by the sight of a perfect little dummy who has no idea what's going on.
Anyway. Please allow…22nd January 2020 The publishing elves are making a book for you
Is it still appropriate to say Happy New Year? Well it's too late now, I've let slip my wishes. I hope that since December 31st you've been happy.
I have a secret to tell you all. I know under "Manuscript received" it says "Publication date: TBC", but I can confirm a rough one has been set, and it's February 2021.
Why so long?
The answer is that there are a whole…16th December 2019 120%, you say? Have an interview with standup comedian Dr Phil Hammond
Hello This Party's Dead subscribers!
I have several things to tell you and they're all exciting. ALL OF THEM.
30th October 2019 I made you some bones out of sugar and filmed it
- I didn't make a huge deal of it at the time, because I was busy drinking champagne in my pyjamas, but the book sailed over the 100% preorder target a while ago. THANK YOU. That was you, that was. You'll be rewarded with my eternal gratitude and also a book, hopefully around summer…
First of all, as you'll have been informed by now, the book has SAILED over its preorder target and will be dropping on your doorsteps sometime in 2020. That, and "before Waterstones gets it" is as specific as I can be right now – but the manuscript deadline is less than five weeks away. So excited, and I love you for being here before it's even finished. THANK YOU.
Second of all, Unbound…6th October 2019 94%, a book giveaway, and did I tell you about the time I nearly fell off a tomb?
Hello and no I'm still not over getting hit in the head by a corpse, HOW ARE YOU?
I have three things to tell you:
5th September 2019 Judge this book by its cover.
- I had an essay about the Turning of the Bones, Madagascar's death festival, published in Human Parts (oh god, that was such a good name for a publication before I came along). It opens with me teetering on the roof-edge of a tomb. Check it out – press play at the top of the…
Hello, early subscribers to This Party’s Dead!
Just a quick note to let you know Unbound have let an artist loose on my book, and produced this beautiful Cover Art print:
And as is customary in our conveniently consumerist culture, if you want it, it's yours. A brand new pledge level, 'Cover Art Print' sits right there between 'Read With a Friend' and 'Death Get-Together'. So go ahead and…15th August 2019 I got hit in the head by a corpse. That's just who I am now.
I am currently in Kyoto hiding from a typhoon, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to update you via the medium of VIDEO - complete with music and clips from the various death festivals. I didn't get footage of my getting hit in the head by someone's long-deceased relative – apologies.
Here it is. (Some links are showing copyright issues because of about 30 seconds of a song. Madness…19th June 2019 Do you realise what you've done, you legends?
You bunch of absolute legends. Do you realise what you’ve done? Your collective preorders have added up to 70% of the target I have to reach to get a publication date for This Party’s Dead.
GREAT WORK, TEAM!
As a thank you, I have included a little extract from my chapter on New Orleans at the bottom of this update – if you're wondering how to dispose of bodies in…10th April 2019 Your father never called me from Heaven
It's 36°C (96°F), but my weather app says it "feels like" 44°C (111°F). I have a sweat tear dribbling down my cheek, but I refuse to go inside. I'm on a rooftop in Bangkok, and tomorrow I'll be heading back to Gloucestershire where the temperature is nine times lower. If I'm going to update you on the latest festival for the dead in THIS PARTY'S DEAD, I'm going to do it up here: 50 floors up in a…4th January 2019 100 rejections and other updates
Hello, Happy New Year, and I hope you enjoyed the Nepal chapter. Here are a couple of updates from me, your friendly neighbourhood death-festival-visitor:
New Years Resolution: 100 rejections
My friend Anita Gill told me about an excellent idea that I've taken on as a New Years Resolution: to aim for 100 rejections in 2019. Article pitches, book ideas, essays, short stories, fellowships, residencies…6th November 2018 There are no death festivals in winter. Off-season's greetings!
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…16th October 2018 A death festival in Sicily (insert obligatory Godfather quote here)
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…16th September 2018 Vermonty Python
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…23rd August 2018 It’s not pronounced ‘nipple’
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…16th July 2018 A quarter of the way there!
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:
9th May 2018 Biscotti, chocolate and dead people (this is how I say hi)
- 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…
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.