My roommate is the best, guys. Not only is she a sex therapist, meaning we live in Ye Ol’ Haus of Eros & Thanatos, she also gives a good gift.
Exhibit A, black lace parasol for my birthday.
This Yule-season, dear roommate Jill was thinking even bigger. She had recently ordered her mother a bag of personalized M&M’s because for some reason that’s a thing. You can get your face printed on M&M’s, words printed on M&M’s, your dog printed on M&M’s, all the things printed on M&M’s.
M&M’s happens to think personalized M&M’s are good for pretty much ANYTHING. Anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, weddings, father’s day, mother’s day, baby showers, bar mitzvahs, sports events, animal sacrifices, etc. But as Jill learned the hard way, the one thing personalized M&M’s don’t make a delightful chocolate companion to? DEATH.
Here we have the first three images she submitted for my fanciful Christmas death-themed M&M’s. I mean, c’mon, cute as heck, right?
M&M’s promptly replied with a rejection notice that read:
“We wanted to thank you for your recent order (0011830895) of personalized MY M&M’S and we are very excited to assist you in creating the perfect experience.
We want to confirm that we have received your order; however the following image and/or text included with your order cannot be used:
Again, the same rejection from M&M’s. “Did you know why they were rejecting them at this point?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah, totally, but I just figured I would keep doing it until they gave up. A battle of wills with Mars North America.”
Finally, the selection of the skull, really the most elegant I think. This is where “Katie,” the person on the receiving end of personalized M&M orders had to fess up to the real reason for the aforementioned rejections:
“It is our policy not to print anything in reference to death on our My M&M’s® Brand candies as it may be viewed as offensive and may not represent the fun and whimsical nature of our brand. We hope that you will respect our decision to ensure that our products will continue to be a colorful, light-hearted addition to family celebrations which is one of the goals of My M&Ms Brand.
Please be advised we are also unable to print your message reading “DEATH”.
There you have it. M&M’s are delicious, but they are not a death positive. Down with the death negative corporate machine! Skull M&M’s for everyone. Guess they’re not good for EVERY occassion, i.e. funerals, eh M&M’s?
In the end, the fact that M&M’s personally rejected my death M&M’s as a threat to their brand identity was the greatest Christmas miracle of them all.
Meet my friend Zoe Feldman.
When Zoe was 27 years old, the woman who had been everything from a significant other, to romantic partner, to friend, died unexpectedly in her sleep. In an instant Zoe found herself a grief-stricken late 20-something living in New York City. Not the ideal in a culture where death earns you the right to three frown-y face Facebook statuses before you’re supposed to buck up and get on with it.
But grief knows no polite boundaries. Raw, real grief can continue on, morphing into monsters you never saw coming. Do yourself a great favor and read Zoe’s brilliant essay (damn can she write) on the subject “Rainbows, Unicorns, and Simpler Times.”
At Becca’s funeral, Zoe was sitting in her car, having not slept for 4 days, and all of a sudden Mariah Carey’s Heartbreaker comes on the radio. And she loses her shit. Sobbing, rage, despair. She can’t listen to the song again (not even the Jay-Z part) for months and months. Zoe, now 29, is finally ready to channel her grief into a project that has the full support of the Order: Lisa Frank Mixtape.
If you’ve got a story – grieving about death, or a breakup (which, by the way, I can now confidently say is a LOT like a death), or having recently realized you’ve woken up at 29 and might not want the same things other people do – send it to me here. I will post it. I will make you a mixtape about it. I will make that mixtape heavy on the 90s influence. And I will send you that mixtape, in the mail.
My first response was, “really? You’re going to make all those grieving people a mixtape?” So I asked Zoe about it.
Caitlin: You’re going to make all those grieving people a mixtape?
Zoe: Yes. For real. If a mix CD is preferred, I’m happy to oblige. But I draw the line at digital. Can’t do digital.
Caitlin: Why Lisa Frank? Emblem for our lost youth?
Zoe: Lisa Frank because it’s fucking hilarious. What is the antithesis of grief and death and interminable sadness, if not multicolored neon glitter unicorns jumping out of rainbows?! She says something about our particular generation’s (now long gone) youth, because we all worshipped her like the Goddess that she was from the hallways of our elementary and middle schools – and, as far as I know, her influence was greatest during the 90s. Her brand represents innocence on the purest level. When we worshipped her, we didn’t yet know about How Terrible Things Could Possibly Happen To Us Or To The People We Loved. That’s the beauty of youth – you’re convinced you and everyone around you is invincible. You don’t know any better.
Caitlin: What is the connection between grief and music?
Zoe: It’s incredible how poignant music can be, particularly in moments of pure joy or extreme sadness. Becca was the proprietor of a very well-known music blog, The Bee Charmer, and she was slipping mix CD’s of then-unknown Cocorosie and Cat Power and Metric under my door in 2004, at the dawn of the music blog as serious artform. She introduced me to so much music I would never have found on my own. After she died, I couldn’t listen to anything – literally, nothing – I drove in silence, I worked in silence, I walked in silence. Her dad had the same predicament. Everything reminded him of her. He was terrified to turn on the radio for fear of having a meltdown. She was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and it was amplified by music, or the lack thereof.
Once the fog lifted, which took about six months, I was re-introduced to sound. After six months of darkness and quietude and self-imposed social isolation, I started listening again – and I heard differently.
Caitlin: When did you finally get inspired to act on this project?
Zoe: My dear friend Drew and I started talking about co-creating a blog about death and grief and being in our 20s over brunch in Seattle when I was visiting her in the spring. She lost her biological father nearly a decade ago, and she was one of the few people with whom I felt comfortable talking to about everything I had been feeling. Many a night did I call her in distress. Drew, bless her heart, is the Queen of the Internet to my 100-year-old anti-digital self, and she told me about this kind of okay blog called Order of the Good Death, run by this girl who seemed sort of fine or whatever.
Zoe and I have been corresponding ever since. I love her, though she is only cruel to me. Sending all manner of mean spirited .gifs to make her point.
Projects like this are so wildly needed. Every grief website and resource is important, especially those trying to step outside the box. Technology is changing, grief is changing, and what is good for the grieving goose might not be good for the bereaved gander. We need voices and a community for grief, especially for those in groups (people under 30, LBGT) who are made to feel disenfranchised in their grieving.
Again, the website is LisaFrankMixtape, and Zoe’s email is email@example.com.
Marc Sacks is a biomedical engineer in South Africa. His first piece for the Order is about meeting a room of 80 medical school cadavers.
My choice to study biomedical engineering was informed by a course listed in the third year of study: “ANAT2020 – Anatomy.” It is the same anatomy course taken by the medical students, a comprehensive study of histology (the microscopic study of tissues), embryology and, of course, morphological or gross anatomy; the study of the macroscopic structures of the human body. All areas of study interesting in their own right, what really piqued my interest was the practical side of the course: cadaver dissection.
To my 18-year-old mind, cadaver dissection seemed like something “cool,” how many people get to dissect humans, after all? I wasn’t quite prepared for the way the medical school draped the whole process in an air of somber nobility. First there was a swearing-in ceremony, where the anatomy students had to pledge an oath to treat the cadavers with the same respect one would have for a living person. Then we had to sign a register which was a legally binding document, as part of the South African human tissues legislation. Essentially, we were not allowed to photograph any specimens and we obviously couldn’t take any tissues (except for bones to study) out of the dissection hall.
I didn’t know this ceremony would take place in the dissection hall itself, the cadavers already splayed out in ten by eight rows of gurneys, wrapped in formalin-soaked cloth and covered with plastic – they looked a lot like mummies. And so we sat in the hall for about an hour, listening to speeches from several members of staff. The hall was two floors underground; there were no windows and there was poor ventilation. It did not make for a very good first impression: to be packed into a hot, stuffy hall with around 80 dead bodies reeking strongly of formalin.
It was, however, an interesting visual. The cadavers were all covered but one could still discern shapes: some were fat, some were short, many had their legs partially flexed in a deathly rigidity – I would later learn that the embalming process could prolong rigor mortis. Their being covered only contributed to the mystery which, since a child, I have found compelling – what happens after death? I was, for the most part, fine with the smell and the heat and, well, the corpses. I had framed it all in a comfortably detached academic setting. It was only when the dean of the medical school turned the corpses back into humans that I felt a dizziness descend upon me, an existential unrest.
“Don’t forget,” he said, “they were walking the streets of Johannesburg, just a few weeks ago.” I scanned my eyes across the rows of bodies and suddenly they became animated – I could see the fat ones enjoying a meal, the small ones as little old ladies shuffling about. They had intent, desires, fears, hopes…and now they were here. They were here and about to be subjected to all manner of terrible acts, all their corporeal secrets were to be revealed to a troop of marauding students and there was not a thing they could do about it. In their death they had relinquished all control and were at our mercy. My mercy. I was not prepared for what I could now see was a type of twisted power.
This is perhaps the crux. I, above all else, value my autonomy and now with no subtlety or charm I saw death as the ultimate contradiction to and enemy of autonomy. With one sentence the Dean had disturbed a long stagnant pool of fears. The ceremony ended and all the students began to chatter – but by then it was all white noise to me and for some haunting, terrible reason a song played in my mind: this song. Accuse me of melodrama, but it is the truth and here I am striving for candor. I drove home in a state of anxiety and had to keep reminding myself that I had learnt nothing new that day; I always knew I was mortal, that I would die, that I was just a hunk of meat – walking around one day and wrapped up on a gurney the next; waiting to be picked apart by lab-coat wearing vultures. But this did nothing to calm me; it would be a relatively long time until I truly came to grips with mortality and seeing humans as objects, through a series of enlightening, often gruesome and sometimes unbearable set of dissections.
Claire has a terminal illness.
Today she wrote me an email to say she finds the tone of the Order of the Good Death offensive, because she herself does not find anything about the process of dying amusing. This is understandable, as death & dying can be a very lonely, bleak, awful place.
She went on to say that no one should be speaking publicly about dying unless “you know firsthand of what you speak.” Her implication was that I should not be allowed to talk about dying unless I myself am actually dying.
In a way, I would argue that we’re all dying. I may not have a disease that will kill me within the next 6 months, but we—you, me, every one of us—is dying. Our incurable disease is being alive. The knowledge that we WILL inevitably die influences every decision that we make. Our relationship with death is the most important one we’ll ever have. To wait until we are actually dying to acknowledge that relationship is to deny a large part of ourselves.
This past weekend we put on an event in Los Angeles called Death Salon. It was a group of death academics and scholars, funeral and hospice professionals, gathered to have panels and public events on death. This week there was an article about Death Salon in The Atlantic.
Sure, Internet 101 is never read the comments. Lesson 1: Here is your computer’s “on” button. Lesson 2: For fuck’s sake, don’t read the comments.
But I did, of course, because it’s like a horrific car accident you can’t look away from.
They ranged from the truly ridiculous: “What you’re saying is that more and more people in this new ‘death culture’ really want to become zombies, or vampires, Nosferatu, the undead. I mean, that’s what they’re aiming for, right?”
You got it, dude. At last our twisted plot to transform the whole lot of us into li’l Klaus Kinskis is revealed!
To comments like this: “One gains access to an awareness of one’s own mortality only via a life-threatening event or becoming elderly. The 20/30-somethings are just fooling themselves.”
Or: “anybody who claims to be confronting [death] whilst…referring to herself as a “macabre nerd” is fooling herself.”
These are two different commenters, using the phrase “fooling themselves” to describe the younger generation’s attempt to improve its relationship with death.
So unless you’re a) dying, b) elderly, or c) facing a life-threatening event, death & mortality are not for you to speak of. This is what upsets me about The Atlantic comments and the email from Claire. The self-satisfied tone that says to anyone who is exploring their mortality: “DEATH IS NOT FOR YOU, O CURIOUS AND HOPELESSLY UNQUALIFIED* ONE.”
* “Unqualified” based on my own arbitrary standards.
Death culture, death practices & rituals, and the physical act of dying are just as diverse as humans themselves. The corpse rainbow is a coat of many colors (that metaphor went off the rails somewhere, apologies).
Death is not a fad. Talking about mortality is not a trend piece like artisanal pickles or hand-carved charcuterie boards. It’s not something that “hipsters” are doing now. It is the fundamental core of the human experience. And to say that people in their 20s and 30s (there were many people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s at Death Salon, too, by the way) could “never understand” or are unequipped to discuss it is ludicrous.
If we do not discuss it, are we not doomed to repeat the mistakes of Western death culture of the last 75 years? The denial, the disconnect with grief and the dead body, a medical system that intervenes at all costs, regardless of the quality of remaining life or death the person can expect to have. The stakes for our future relationship with death are not small. We need all the conversations about mortality we can get, old & young, black & white, hip & square.
For the past four months, 59 Chicago-area funeral directors and drivers have been locked out of their funeral homes by the corporation that owns them, Texas-based Service Corporation International, or SCI. You may know SCI as the inspiration for Kroehner, the megacorp attempting to buy out the family funeral home on the television show Six Feet Under. One of the locked-out funeral directors has generously agreed to (anonymously) share their story with the Order. The directors are keeping a record of the unfolding events HERE.
For the record, the Order supports & stands behind the suggestions made by this anonymous funeral director.
One thing I never foresaw myself doing was walking a picket line in front of a funeral home with a sign that said “Locked Out by SCI.”
I work for the Texas-based funeral corporation Service Corporation International (SCI), and yes, I am still a current employee. Back in June 2013, SCI sat down with our union to negotiate a new contract. It was a very frustrating time, with the company trying to take away benefits like our pension, health care, and overtime. They made silly changes to the our contracts that stated you could be fired for “being intimidating” or not taking the online training courses, and now only one person would be needed on a home removal (a delicate procedure in the family home, best handled with two people). It was very obvious the company did not want to work out a fair contract with our workers.
So we voted as a group to begin striking on July 2nd. We picketed peacefully and respectfully in front 13 of the 16 funeral homes in the Chicagoland area that were on strike. The funeral homes were still in business, with the managers scrambling to get things done inside with replacement funeral directors that the company flew in from other parts of the country and a few local directors who signed on for temporary work.
On August 19th, we offered to come back to work while the company and the union negotiate a fair contract, SCI/Dignity Memorial said no and we were officially locked out. We had several directors who resigned their membership early in the strike to return to work, they were also locked out of work with this move.
There are 59 funeral directors and drivers affected by this lockout. SCI/Dignity Memorial has met with the union about once a month since July and the contract keeps getting worse than their “Best and Final” offer. The main offense is that SCI wanted to switch contributing to a healthy pension fund to a 401k with a 4 percent match. How can one save for the future with such a sad replacement for a pension? The next month they came back to the table, the contract removed the health care we participate in with the union. We found this abhorrent, we have an amazing preventive health care plan through the union. Now they would like to switch us over to SCI’s health care plan, which ironically comes in three tiers, just like the packages that they offer their families.
There has been very little movement since August really; they met once more in September but no movement on that contract either. There is no future negation date set as of October 21st. We have been picketing for 114 days. I do get offended whenever people refer to SCI as a big “pyramid scheme” or liken us to a bunch of used car sellers. While some may perceive a company like SCI to be evil as a whole, it is the local funeral directors that perform the funerals and become the face to the community. We are not the evil lot in Texas that brings in about 9 million a year, we are your neighbors and friends, and a fraction of what’s left of the middle class. SCI/Dignity Memorial is notorious for underpaying its directors around the country. We are asking to stay with what we had in the last contract; it was actually similar to what other unions in Illinois have negotiated with the smaller family-owned funeral homes that don’t make nearly as much money as SCI.
We need the support of the middle class around the country, we have to help each other fight for what is right. If you can avoid it, DO NOT use an SCI/Dignity Memorial funeral home. The name SCI will be quite small on the sign but it will say “Dignity Memorial,” likely in quite large green lettering. Even if your family member has a pre-need/pre-paid funeral at this SCI funeral home, you can transfer to another funeral home, that money went to a third party for safe keeping, so it can be redeemed at any other funeral home of your choosing.