British journalist Sarah Murray's book "Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre — How We Dignify the Dead" is a sensitive, humorous and insightful survey of how cultures worldwide treat their dead, and what Americans might learn from them.
‘Making an Exit: From the
Magnificent to the Macabre —
How We Dignify the Dead’
by Sarah Murray
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St. Martin’s Press, 306 pp., $25.99
It might seem odd to call journalist Sarah Murray’s latest book an “Eat, Pray, Love” for the afterlife. After all, the subject of “Making an Exit” isn’t quite one woman’s quest to find herself through eating, yoga and a relationship with a hot guy in an exotic locale. But there are parallels.
Motivated by personal events (her father’s death), British author and Financial Times contributor Murray sets out on a world tour to better understand how the living send the dead on to their final resting places. Along the way, she offers cultural commentary on how we manage death in England and America. In the wrong hands, such a book could have turned into a celebration of the grotesque, yet Murray tackles an uncomfortable subject with sensitivity, humor and great insight.
Interspersing anthropology with history and travel narratives, Murray provides a sampling of funereal and mourning practices from around the world. In Bali, she views the magnificent ceremonial cremations of Balinese royalty, which are accompanied by the construction of huge effigies of bulls and dragons that are also incinerated. In Ghana, she visits the woodworkers who design brightly colored coffins that stand for something significant in the life of the deceased. “It seemed to me that knowing you’d be leaving the world in a giant orange fish or a huge wooden banana could make it slightly less traumatic,” she writes.
Murray is sufficiently moved to commission her own coffin, a replica of the Empire State Building meant to represent her adopted city. As she observes customs from other lands, she is frank about her own fears, that in death “there’ll be no more new discoveries, no more exotic, enchanted experiences. Nothing will make my heart race because my heart will have stopped … “
In the Philippine mountain village of Sagada, she takes part in a dramatic funeral that combines the rites of Christianity with the pre-Christian practice of burying the dead, wrapped in ceremonial blankets and compressed into the fetal position, “in wooden sarcophagi that are left hanging on cliff faces or lodged in the fissures and caverns of Sagada’s jagged forests of stone.”
For a moment, Murray envies the clearly prescribed ritual and the communal certainty it seems to provide the villagers. But for her the benefits of being part of a close-knit society are outweighed by the limitations, especially the expectation that one will never stray far from the confines of one’s village existence.
In fact, one of the implicit themes of this book is how death rituals are altered by our highly mobile, global existences. Moreover, as the percentage of single-person U.S. households has climbed by almost 10 percent in the past 40 years, more of us will likely die alone.
“Making an Exit” raises a host of issues worth thinking about. The book also asks uncomfortable questions about our society’s myriad and often awkward ways of dealing with death.
Embalming, which first gained popularity in the United States during the Civil War, comes to seem a uniquely weird American phenomenon. Although remnants of mummies have been found in ancient societies ranging from Peru to Egypt, embalming was generally restricted to royalty.
The idea of embalming for the masses turns out to be an American practice that is not as widespread in other cultures as we might think. Accordingly, many of us are making alternative arrangements. “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.” Murray also covers new trends in Western burial practices, ranging from the delightfully quirky (snow globes made from your ashes) to the eco-friendly.
In addition to being a deeply informative book, “Making an Exit” is a personal one. Murray’s reflections on her father’s terminal illness and his plans for a no-frills cremation are particularly touching. To remember him, she and her family sent out cards asking friends and family to make a toast to his life at 6 p.m. on the day that would have been his 80th birthday. The reminiscences they received in the mail after this virtual memorial service were deeply satisfying.
In the end, as her own experiences show, the rituals we create to honor the dead may say more about the living, and our fears and hopes.
Rachel Newcomb is an associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.”