Wednesday, 19 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 a swamp in a way that is basically 100% green, scroll down. (Warning: god bless the early settlers of New Orleans, because it was a pretty gross learning curve.)
You’re a French prisoner in the 1700s, and someone gives you the choice of staying in prison, or going to a swamp across the world to help build a new city. You’ll be released from prison with a new life and a new job... Now, do you like alligators? What about poisonous snakes? You worry, but it’s the mosquitoes you’ve got to watch out for; they carry yellow fever which in 1853 will kill 10,000 people in one summer alone. It’ll take until 1905 for anybody to realise it’s mosquitoes; they’ll assume it’s being caused by all the decaying bodies. Oh, I almost forgot – the dead bodies absolutely refuse to stay in the ground. Now, do you want the job or not?
“Where is the book now?”, I don’t hear you ask, because this is a one-way conversation, but I will tell you anyway - I have so far visited festivals for the dead in Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, and Thailand. Next up is Madagascar in late July/ early August. A week after I get home I’ll be flying to Japan, and then straight to Indonesia. Yes, I’m exhausted just thinking about it, and yes, I’m very excited. Madagascar and Indonesia’s festivals both involve actual corpses, so you can see why I’ve left them til last...
In the meantime, I’m brushing up my French for Madagascar, learning enough Japanese to get by in Kyoto, and noting down any life hacks for not melting in the August heat.
Want to help This Party's Dead get over the 100% line? You could share it with your networks (who are surely as strange as you), or you could even upgrade your pledge (the Biscotti Edition is popular - traditional ‘bones of the dead’ biscotti with your book, anyone?).
That’s all for now. Have a great week, and enjoy the excerpt below.
For Lease: Not Haunted
My friend's San Francisco apartment is like a baked Alaska: freezing on the inside thanks to an enthusiastic air conditioner, and scorched on the outside under the midday sun.
Aaron and I met in Thailand where we worked together making films at a flailing tech startup. I drag my suitcase into the apartment, all ready to tell him and his girlfriend Helen about the bizarre interview I’d had with the transhumanist leader who reckons he can eradicate death, when they bring me into their living room and my eye falls on a decorative mini sign that says, “THE FUTURE IS TRANSHUMAN”.
Dear god. They’re everywhere.
We spend a weekend in a tech haze. We drive down winding Lombard Street in a car hired for an hour via an app, eat ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen, and have conversations that might kindly be described as ‘batshit’.
“What if you could take out a part of your brain,” asks Aaron, “and replace it with a machine that can do the same job?”
“Ok,” I say, “go on.”
“And then you could remove another part of your brain and do the same thing.”
“Right, so you’ve removed the part of my brain which controls, for example, walking, and put in a machine which does the same thing?”
“Ok, yes, fine, go on.”
He does go on. He hypothetically removes every bit of my brain from my skull, and hypothetically stuffs it with hypothetical machines.
“So eventually, your entire brain is a machine!” He beams at me, his hands outstretched as if to say ‘Ta-da!’
“Ok, I’ve just got one question, one I don’t think we touched on.”
“Why?” he says, then cocks his head to the side and says, thoughtfully, “Huh. Why…?”
“Aaron! You’ve just put my entire brain in a bin! It was a perfectly good brain. I was planning on using it until I’m 80. There is no machine yet that even has a comparable shelf life. Get it out of the bin, now.”
I told you. Batshit.
After a four-hour flight to New Orleans and a taxi to the French Quarter, I couldn’t feel further from the high-tech, chrome-edged world of San Francisco. It’s machines vs dusty history books. The Singularity vs the Second Coming. Robots coding us into the future vs spectres endlessly playing out scenes from the past. The blazing swamp heat peels the paint on muggy, fairy-lit porches, and gently smothers me as I blink up at a real estate sign that reads, ‘NOT HAUNTED’.
I wonder how they verified that.
It turns out to be a “joke to drum up business” dreamed up by local real estate broker Finis Shelnutt – although when the signs first went up in 2014, he told USA Today that he believed the eight properties he had on the market were indeed haunted.
The belief that the dead walk among us lends humans a kind of supremacy; it suggests our deaths are so important that they imprint the very air. Well, the cuteness hierarchy has allowed a couple of man’s favourite animals into our ghostly chronicles – dogs, cats, a few cows. But no one ever called an exterminator to take care of a rodent infestation and then said, “at night you hear the squeaks, the echoes of scurrying in the walls – and sometimes you see little bits of cheese floating just above the floor…”
For once, I’m not travelling alone. My friend Marlo has flown in from New York to meet me. Even taking into account the western reluctance to discuss death, it would be unfair to describe Marlo without using the word “anxious”; I have spent roughly 4% of our entire friendship convincing her she doesn’t have rabies. So she’s not keen to join me at the Museum of Death.
I do, however, convince her to join me on a cemetery tour.
You’re a French prisoner in the 1700s, and someone gives you the choice of staying in prison, or going to a swamp across the world to help build a new city. You’ll be released from prison with a new life and a new job – but it’s a swamp. There’s no getting around it. It has a tropical climate, and on a cooler day in August temperatures might, if you’re lucky, drop to only 100 degrees with 100% humidity. Ah, you’re a tough guy, you can handle it. Now, do you like alligators? What about poisonous snakes? You worry, but it’s the mosquitoes you’ve got to watch out for; they carry yellow fever which in 1853 will kill 10,000 people in one summer alone. It’ll take until 1905 for anybody to realise it’s mosquitoes; they’ll assume it’s being caused by all the decaying bodies. Oh, I almost forgot – the dead bodies absolutely refuse to stay in the ground. Now, do you want the job or not?
As New Orleans was a Catholic colony, bodies had to be buried; cremation was condemned by the Catholic church until 1963, and still maintains that it doesn’t “hold the same value” as burial. But New Orleans is a terrible place to bury corpses. Firstly, they believed (as many still do) that bodies had to be buried at six feet, which is tricky to do when you hit water after after four. So since bodies were being interred in what amounted to an underground river, there was no guarantee your grandmother would stay in the spot where she had been buried. She could have floated all the way back into town by the time you came to put flowers down.
Secondly, the dead didn’t just move sideways, but upwards.
The solution they came up with left a lot to be desired, particularly for those expected to carry it out. Let us spare a thought for the poor guy whose job it was to drill holes in the coffin so water would get in and weigh it down. Then he’d dig to four feet, put the coffin in the ground, jump up and down on it until it equalled six feet, then cover it with dirt. Job done – until it rained, when rising water levels would bring the coffins closer to the surface. Only by now, the body would be producing gas. In a coffin full of holes. Scientists among you will have worked out what’s coming: the dead were popping out of the ground like champagne corks all over the city. They put a gate around the cemetery to prevent them getting away, but that didn’t stop them leaping out of the ground. Our poor friend with The Worst Job in the World would find the remains, have no idea whom they belonged to, and simply dig a hole and rebury them. The cemeteries were disgusting and overflowing, and to top it off no one had any idea whose remains they were visiting.
In 1789, they opened Saint Louis Cemetery to solve the problem once and for all. As of today, Saint Louis has around 700 tombs housing approximately 100,000 bodies. The tombs are all above ground, like stone morgues, one on top of the other. The body is placed inside, where temperatures can get up to 350F, the temperature at which you’d bake a turkey. Over a year, this causes a natural cremation, leaving nothing but ash, maybe a few teeth. After leaving the body for a year and a day, they take a 10ft push broom, and push the remains to the back of the tomb where they fall through an opening into a pit. The Catholics of early New Orleans reasoned that this entirely green cremation was acceptable because Jesus was also buried in an above-ground tomb – plus they weren’t cremating the dead: God and nature was.
When the Americans arrived, they didn’t take kindly to being told what to do by the French Catholics, so they went ahead and buried their dead and put down a slab to stop the bodies popping out of the ground. The practice didn’t catch on. Our cemetery guide, Dartagna, tells us, “You wanna hear that coffin hitting that big heavy slab all the time. And this is where French parenting comes into play, a child would say ‘Mama, what's all that tapping?’ And the mother would say, ‘Well honey, when they were alive, they were very wicked Protestants, so they're trying to break out of hell. So honey you be a good Catholic and that will not happen to you.’”
The dead outnumber the living in New Orleans, 10 to 1: there are around four million corpses in a city of fewer than 400,000 living people. There are a number of reasons for this: by American standards it’s a very old city, founded in 1718, decades before the USA declared its nationhood. There were also two major fires, including one that burned down over 1000 of the 1100 buildings in the French Quarter – not to mention cholera, malaria, yellow fever, hurricanes and a consistently high murder rate. Essentially, though death comes for us all, it doesn’t have to commute very far to get to New Orleans. People who are drawn to death are drawn here. Nicolas Cage built his tomb here in Saint Louis cemetery, in 2010; a huge white pyramid, smooth aside from two cracks where it’s been struck by lightning three times – despite being nowhere near the highest point of the cemetery. “What that says for Nic and the actor life,” says Dartagna, “we do not know.”
If any tomb was going to be struck by lightning you’d expect it to be the tallest, a stunning monument that looks like a giant marble jewellry box: the Italian Benevolent Society tomb. Immigrants in New Orleans would often pool funds for society tombs to lower individual burial costs, creating a kind of tribal effect in the cemetery. The architect Pietro Gualdi came over and designed it in 1857, but finished three weeks early because he despised New Orleans and couldn’t wait to get home. Unfortunately, the society didn’t have even half of his money ready, so they told him to get an apartment and sit tight.
But the mosquitoes got him.
He caught yellow fever.
He was the first to be entombed in his creation.