I love reading. I love reading everything I can get my hands on. Most of the time, I end up reading books that contribute in some way to my work, so they’re usually about copywriting, real estate investing, business, and so on. I do read “non-work” books (that is: fiction and non-fiction that I read purely for pleasure and not for any professional reason) but usually just a chapter or two every evening.
But this book is the exception. It has no professional relevance but when I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down and I ended up reading the entire thing in 24 hours.
The book is Curtains by Tom Jokinen.
I would have never picked up the book or even noticed it in the library but my wife belongs to a book club and they chose to read this book. So she brought it home, I noticed it on the counter and started reading it. I couldn’t put it down and I devoured the book in just a couple of sittings over a 24 hour period. Then I just had to tell you about it even though it’s not the subject matter I typically write about.
Wow! What a fascinating book!
The author spent a year working in the funeral industry and sharing his discoveries. I wouldn’t call him an investigative journalist (I tend to view them as combative and having an agenda) but rather let’s call him an “experiential journalist” where he truly devoted a full year to studying the funeral industry.
His work is funny, fascinating, and disarmingly honest as he reveals a part of the industry that most of us never see. He shows what happens when someone dies — basically the steps that happen and the processes they go through as the deceased are moved from deathbed to grave. (Spoiler alert: A lot of it is gross).
Because of his approach (he’s actually working IN the industry, not just reporting from research and interviews) he has a hands-on perspective that I don’t think you can get from anywhere else, while at the same time he has an outsider’s perspective because he’s not “in” the industry in the same way that someone else might be. For this reason, Jokinen seems uniquely able to share everything about the funeral industry in a way that is accurate and compelling for outsiders.
And he shares everything! The book opens with a mistake he makes while transporting a dead body (he drops the gurney); he talks about how bodies are embalmed; he discusses the industry itself — how it’s made up of big players and independents; he talks about cremation and burial and the processes required to make each happen; he talks about grief and coping, funeral sales, the challenges of operating a funeral home in a highly competitive industry… and more.
Underlying his entire book is an exploration of mortality and, perhaps more fascinating, an exploration of society’s approach to death — some cultures ignore it, others embrace it.
I have always been fascinated by the funeral industry. In my undergraduate degree I learned a lot about the industry during some of my religious studies courses. And with my mix of skills, I actually think I’d do pretty well in the funeral industry (but up-front in the funeral home dealing with those suffering from loss; probably not so much dealing with dead bodies and all of the steps involved in embalming). And I’m weirdly interested in how our world views death — we do everything we can to hold it at bay and when it inevitably happens, we do everything we can to ignore it.
This book was a real surprise. I was interested in it because of the subject matter but once I started reading it, I was drawn right in as the author shared this hidden world. I can see why it is a book club choice — it’s a great read and has prompted many discussions in my house as my wife and I reflected on what we read.
Even if you’re not as fascinated by the funeral industry as I am, you will still be impacted by the book’s message because of its relevance to all of us.