A Deathly Tour

Destination: Bali, Philippines, Sicily, Dorset in England, Ghana and other assorted locales.

Book Cover
Book: Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre–How We Dignify the Dead (NEW December 2012) by Sarah Murray

Sarah Murray has chosen an intriguing subject for Making an Exithow we deal with death. And she has a winning style of writing.  I loved the concept–travel around the world to check on their customs and practices and decide how she herself would like to “Exit”. A travelogue of death rites.

She says that death is scary stuff…

But we humans are practical beings. When we need shelter, we build a house.  When we’re hungry, we hunt, farm, and cook.  So when confronted with the terrifying vision of our impending mortality, we get really creative.  After all, there’s perhaps no human condition to which more attention has been devoted than death.”

Bali Cremation Ceremony Bull

Her two main purposes alternate with section of memoir about her father, whose recent death and skepticism about memorials led to her exploration.  Her book is arranged in chapters that visit fascinating  places, like Bali, Sicily, and Ghana, each of which she describes with enticing detail. About Bali, she says,

In Bali, dance dramas in dazzling costumes are staged at the drop of a hat and even rice gets treated to elaborate rituals. … the law stipulates that buildings can rise no higher than the palm trees. Oh, and the trash trucks are painted with pictures of lotus flowers. Of course, Bali’s funerals are fabulous.

And here is Ghana:

Ghana coffin
Ghana Airplane Coffin

In terms of natural beauty, the coastline is not one of West Africa’s finest features.  Along a weather-beaten highway, cars and trucks spew diesel fumes into the sticky tropical air while waves from the Atlantic Ocean pound angrily up against the shore. Dusty banana trees are the only signs of green….Everything seems to be leaning slightly, with wooden posts propping up plastic awnings and unstable-looking sheds turning for support to their equally unsteady neighbors. 

Ghana may not sound too enticing, but they make beautiful coffins, and Murray gets her custom-made coffin, looking like the Empire State Building, from a coffin-maker in Ghana.

Each place she visits illustrates a particular way of dealing with death but the material inside the chapters sometimes gets confusing.  Murray jumps from the anthropological, to a tourist’s view, to memories, to technical explanations of things like what happens to a body as it decays or how exactly embalming works, and then to her consideration of her own death and back again to the first two points.

History writer Barbara Tuchman said, “Research is seductive.” Anyone who has ever started tracking down some information has run into little side roads and alleyways along the way that beg to be explored.   Sometimes what is discovered there replaces what the author was looking for on the main road.  Sometimes, she packs away the new information for another book or article and gets back on track.

However,  the writer may be tempted to find a way to shoehorn it in among the informative bits that she has found on the main subject matter.  That can be a problem, particularly if the subject gets wider and wider, blurring the picture of what it was the author started out to find.

Unfortunately, Murray succumbs to seduction. As a result, we get a lot of repetition. Some is necessary in order not to lose track of where we are and whose customs we are focusing on. But I lost patience after awhile and just wanted to skip to the tourist’s and anthropologist’s views. I actually understood after the first chapter that her father did not want a gathering to mark his passing, but she told me over and over.

Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead Ceremonies in Mexico

My impatience made me rather sad because she really is an excellent writer with a wonderfully wry British wit. Stylistically, each sentence is a gem.

Now perhaps you don’t give a fig about the way the book is organized, or whether things are repeated. You’re just wondering if you really want to read a book that is about dying. Well, yes. As a traveler–or as just any person–you’ll find fascinating information about different places and cultures.

For instance, I loved her story about Taiwan. Since an unmarried woman cannot be worshiped with ancestors on the family altar, a family may put money on the road to trap an unmarried man into marrying the corpse.

So, do you want to be cremated inside a giant bull built of paper and balsa wood just for the occasion? Or would you prefer to commission a Ghana coffin shaped like a rocket or a sports car or a baseball bat? Modern cremation? Put away in something more environmentally friendly like a biodegradable coffin in the woods rather than a churchyard? Or a new water-based method of dissolving the moral remains, using less energy than cremation?  Personally, while I like the Balinese burning bull, I think I’ll opt for going up in fireworks as provided by a company like Angel Flight in California or Heavenly Stars in England.

When you travel, do you visit the dead? Do you visit graveyards and read the inscriptions on the tombs? How about the New Orleans above-ground burials? Have you ever shrunk from the bones in an ossuary or catacombs? Have you gaped at church relics? Seen the funeral pyres in India? Wondered about dolmens in Celtic lands? These are definitely tourist destinations–not to mention the stunning graveyards in Paris, Los Angeles, Westminster Abbey and around the world– or the pyramids of Egypt.

Note: Sarah Murray took all of these photographs, and we use them with her permission. Please respect her copyright.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

4 thoughts on “A Deathly Tour

  1. I’ve added this book to my reading list. It sounds fascinating. I’d suggest reading it with Mary Roach’s Stiff. She covers the science of death in an entertaining way that sounds like it would make a good companion for this book.

    I love cemeteries. And the Roman catacombs fascinated me.

    But although I enjoy reading about elaborate death rituals, I can’t imagine wanting them for myself. Luckily, we have a natural cemetery nearby–bodies are buried in shrouds and embalming is prohibited. Bodies return quickly to the earth.

    That makes sense to me.

  2. in Ireland and in other places I’ve been, I think it’s rather more about recognizing those who’ve gone before than it is about visiting the dead. it is for me, anyway. a difference in mindset, I guess.

    I do visit churches and other places of worship. I find no fascination in graveyards, though, or battlefields, which are a different sort of graveyard — though in my travels I have encountered a number of both.

  3. But YOU wouldn’t get the money–the perspective groom would.

    Sounds like you’ve had several death tours. Tomorrow I’ll share some of my visits to the dead.

  4. I do visit the dead. I loved Highgate and Pere Lachaise (sp) cemeteries especially but my favorite place was the Greek Orthodox monastery near the site of the burning bush in the Sinai desert. The dead were buried and dug up after 6 years (I believe) and their skulls put in a separate skull room. Fascinating, especially because it was in the middle of nowhere and the monks looked like renegades because they were wearing sunglasses — maybe they were renegades, because why else would they be stuck in the middle of the Sinai desert?

    I think I need to move to Taiwan. I love the idea of getting money so someone will want to marry me posthumously~

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