Caleb Wilde is a sixth-generation licensed funeral director and embalmer in Pennsylvania. You wouldn’t think we’d get along, what with all my wacky first-generation West Coast alternative funeral ideas. But Caleb is sufficiently weird, sufficiently open to an evolving death industry, and a real professional. You can find his website here, and follow him on Twitter.
Thinking about counterfactuals can produce maddening entertainment, especially when it comes to one’s own personal existence.
What happens if my dad didn’t spill that Coca-Cola on my mother some 40 years ago on their first date? Was that the attachment trigger that eventually produced me?
Would I exist if Columbus hadn’t sailed the ocean blue in 1492?
If cats were never domesticated, would the Internet even exist?
These. Unanswerable. All.
I do know one thing: my present existence is indebted to John Wilkes Booth.
Johnny B. and me
I’m the love child of a Romeo and Juliet-type romance. My dad’s family owned one funeral home and my mother’s family owned the other funeral home across town. Dad was the fifth-generation funeral director on the Wilde side and mom would’ve been the fourth generation on the Brown side.
With my progenitors overexposure to embalming fluid, I used to think I’d develop some genetically altered mutant power. Like a psychic embalming power that enabled me to embalm my enemies through my mind energy. Think Professor X with embalming fluid.As an adult, I realize that instead of a mutant power I’ll probably just receive an early case of cancer.
Before Booth killed Lincoln, the first generation of Wildes (we emigrated from England) maintained a small “cabinet shop,” which built caskets, dining room tables, beds and the occasional wooden dildo. We’d help the family prepare the deceased and then let them finish the course of funeralization. It was – way back in the 1850s – very much a natural burial. The ones who took care of the deceased in life were also able to do so in death.
After Lincoln’s assassination, his embalmed corpse was paraded by train throughout the states, making stops in 12 major cities, where his body was put on display for public viewing; and passing through a total of 444 communities. A bereaved nation found an outlet for their grief, and their psyche bonded to this newfangled process called embalming. Perhaps there’s no stronger bond than a grief bond; and, whether rational or not, this bond to embalming soon created the American way of death.
The Lincoln Funeral Engine
With the industrialization of furniture making, and the new demand for embalming, we adapted to the market and became full-time undertakers. By 1898, the demand produced a “funeral school” in nearby Philadelphia. My great grandfather enrolled in 1910, and by 1912 we were charging $5.00 for pumping formaldehyde through the arterial system of our dead customers.
Some casket snapshots from a 1910 casket catalog that we still have in our possession.
We moved our small business to a larger town to the east and operated out of a row home. We’d go to the deceased’s house to embalm, build the deceased a casket and help direct the ensuing home funeral.
This is the gravity embalmer that we would have used when embalming the deceased at their home.
In 1928, we bought a large home and we began to offer “our” home for funerals, thus relieving families of “sad associations” during the funeral ceremonies. We advertised “Homelike Surroundings – No Charge for Use of Home.”
And here I am, the sixth generation of licensed Wilde funeral directors, still working in the same home we purchased in 1928. Once a fledgling cabinetry shop, we are now a very small part of a 20-billion-dollar national industry.
Back to counterfactuals.
What would funerals look like if John Wilkes Booth had missed?
Would the “traditional American funeral” be the entrenched tradition?
Would we need the clarion call of the Order of the Good Death?
If she wasn’t shrouding bodies, would Caitlin be shrouding … cats? Oh … wait … yes, she does shroud felines.
I probably wouldn’t exist without John Wilkes Booth; but that’s okay, I wouldn’t know the difference. Perhaps, though, we wouldn’t have industrialized death. Perhaps we’d have a better, more comfortable relationship with dying and death. Perhaps there’d be no need for the death “professionals.” Perhaps we’d be more holistic people, having a better perspective on death and a better appreciation for life.
But reality is what it is and those counterfactuals don’t exist. I’m here. You’re here. And although the American way of death is waning, it’s here too, depriving us — to one degree or another — of the life to be found in death and dying.
Thanks to you, John Wilkes Booth, we’re still fighting the effects of the Civil War.
So here’s a thing: Push the little “CC” closed captioning button at the bottom of any YouTube video and hilarity ensues. WHY, WHY YouTube? I mean, closed captioning, yes, obviously important. But if it’s gonna be all Nazis and steel industry I assume most of our hearing impaired viewers would have a better success rate reading lips?
Thanks to Luke Miller for pointing this out to me.
Lauren is a psychology major at Boston University. She was a runner in this year’s Boston Marathon, only half a mile away from the finish line when the bombings took place. Her fellow Boston University student, Lu Lingzi, was killed. Over the past week, Lauren has been bombarded by media reports and social media musings from friends and acquaintances. She has received university alerts of “suspicious packages” and literally “dozens of emails about scholarship memorials in the name of the deceased, candlelight vigils, live streamings of the memorial, etc.”
In general, Lauren was feeling uncomfortable for not being devastated enough by the bombings and by the death of Lu Lingzi. She did not know Lu Lingzi, and feels like whatever fear she might be feeling is very small compared to, say, the fear that her friends deployed overseas face on a daily basis.
Lauren contacted the Order to ask the following question:
“What do you think propels people to go to [memorials] for a person they never knew the name or face of until it was plastered all over CNN? Does it give them a sense of control in the face of something utterly out of their control? Does it have to do with their own mortality? Survivor’s guilt? Or am I reading too much into it and they are just trying to honor the memory of the one student who died?”
Survivor’s guilt? Sense of control? Addressing their own mortality? In a word: YES.
You’re not reading too much into this at all. In fact, it can be really healthy to ask these questions about potential motivations. It helps us understand more about death, society, human nature, etc. Now, if someone posts an inspirational picture about Boston on Facebook, not a good idea to comment “SURVIVOR’S GUILT, BRO.” But that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t an excellent one to have.
Ernest Becker (who wrote the amazing Denial of Death, which I recommend frequently) said that humans are basically narcissistic creatures. We’re built biologically to be narcissists. It’s a pretty brutal life, after all, trying to find our place in a universe that can kill us off at any second. We often see situations (and certainly death) in terms of how they relate to us. This isn’t always fun to hear, but it’s the reality.
So mass grieving for any devastating event is often not a totally pure exercise of honoring the memory of those who died. The people grieving are absolutely self-identifying, facing their own mortality, and trying to adjust to their own feelings. This is not to say that’s a bad thing. I’m not demeaning their process in any way, as they are searching for answers like you are. It can be a healthy thing, a good thing, an attempt to understand how the role of death and more importantly the fear of death plays in our lives.
When I handle the dead body of a young person, say a drug addict who looks just like a dear friend of mine, I will think about my friend. I will grieve over the fact that he will someday die, and the sorrow that I will feel. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the person who actually is lying dead before me, it just means that we frame things as they relate to us.
BUT – you, Lauren, should not feel bad about your own process, or that you’re not doing enough grieving or identifying with the people who died. Being so close to the actual event, by its very nature, gives you liberty to engage at your own pace in your own way. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you should be more upset/scared right now. Engaging your feelings head on and asking the questions you are asking shows you’re ahead of the game.
The fifth installment from awesome Austin-based funeral director Sarah Wambold documenting the process of opening her own funeral home.
Death darlings –
Over the past few weeks, I have been able to get a glimpse at how the other half of the world lives — and of course, dies. My discovery was not that they do it better (yet they do) but that my weird, sometimes inarticulate idea for a funeral home is actually already happening somewhere in the world. When I decided to go to Spain, it was for the purposes of vacation, to take a break from what was becoming a claustrophobic quest in funeral entrepreneurship and get some clearer headspace about the whole project.
But the Grim Reaper is always beside me, so of course I decided to investigate the Spanish way of death as soon as I arrived. This led me to Málaga, a gorgeous city on the coast of the Mediterranean; the birthplace of Picasso and Antonio Banderas and the place of death of my favorite writer, Jane Bowles. If you are unfamiliar with her work, go out immediately and get My Sister’s Hand in Mine, the collection of her work that includes my favorite pieces: “Two Serious Ladies” and “Camp Cataract.” Jane was married to Paul Bowles until her death, despite the two living apart, and often with other lovers. She was committed to a “sanatorium” in Málaga a few years before her death and was then interred at the Cementario de San Miguel. The cemetery looks like this:
Orange trees line the walkways, which are paved with old tombstones.
Families come here to spend the afternoon and let their children play:
I pattered around for about an hour, taking pictures and feeling right at home. It is an old cemetery, but is undergoing some pretty serious renovations, thanks to the Asociación de Amigos del Cementerio de San Miguel. This group believes the cemetery to be culturally relevant to their community, with some of the brightest minds and most prominent citizens buried there. They are committed to restoring it and my heart swells as I read about their dedication to the dead. Also, this is a common sight throughout the cemetery:
I quietly continued my search for Jane’s grave, but was distracted by this little guy, who looks like my own beloved cat, Clyde:
Trying not to disturb him, I turned to leave and that’s when I found Jane’s spot.
Now what kind of mortician would I be if I didn’t take a black cat leading me to the grave of my hero to be some kind of excellent sign? As I sat beside the grave, an older couple came to visit it and lit candles. I was moved by their reverence and we shared brief words about our respect for Jane’s work.
I sat for a while longer before I left the cemetery in search of the Museo Picasso (a truly worthwhile collection to see if you are ever in the city). Across the street from the cemetery was this Tanatorio (mortuary):
I looked them up immediately when I got back to my hotel. While they appear to be a huge funeral conglomerate in Spain, they don’t hide from the public what they do. Check out this picture on their website:
That’s their prep room. ON THEIR WEBSITE. When is the last time you saw that on any U.S. funeral home website? Maybe once or twice, but certainly not on the website for the biggest funeral corporation in America. Funespaña also has a newsletter called Adiós; straight-up called goodbye. No “remembrances” or “passages,” just — farewell! They hold a yearly Tanatacuentos competition. A death short-story contest!
They also hold a poetry contest called “Verses for Death” and a design competition, this year entitled “Reload the Mourning.” This crew, for as traditional as their services appear to be, has really made an effort to engage with their community on many creative levels. I am even more impressed because they are one of the leading independent funeral providers in Spain, with 86 funeral homes and 116 mortuaries.
It’s not that I felt like my idea was a bad one or not feasible — you all have been great supporters — it is just so nice to see something similar working so well on a much bigger scale. And I really needed to see that.
I take a trip to Savannah, GA to visit cemeteries and take ghost tours and drink more sweet tea than is right and decent.