CURTAINS BY TOM JOKINEN–BACKSTAGE AT DEATH!!

CBC journalist in Winnepeg taking “a month’s leave to dabble in deathcare” reveals the changing face of the funeral industry in this informative but rote tour of duty, an update of sorts on Jessica Mitford’s 1963 The American Way of Death. On his first day as an intern at the Winnepeg crematorium run by Neil Bardal, the undertaker tells him that “the traditional funeral is gone and it’s never coming back”; the bereft world has embraced cremation, with specific impact on a number of industry segments, from vehicles and florists to tombstones and caskets. Jokinen is nonchalantly graphic when getting into the day-to-day of cremation (“I dump the pan of bones onto the steel table and crunch through it with the heavy magnet”), touching on juvenile at times, but makes the point in many ways that, eventually, we’ll all be paying for this industry’s changes. The industry’s big bet is that 75 million North American baby boomers, afraid of death, will want unprecedented control over their funerals, illustrated in examples like a successful Milwaukee funeral home owner who calls Ritz-Carlton and Disney his models. Readers who understand that Joniken took on the role of apprentice undertaker for one reason (they’re reading it) will find an interesting glimpse into an almost-invisible industry, and the forces pushing it in strange new directions.
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From Booklist

Jokinen’s wry observations on and revelations about mortality and the industry it has engendered evoke a youthful adventure into the unknown—not only the philosophical mystery of death but also the “black hole” between the last breath and the reappearance at funeral or cemetery, in casket or urn, the period that, Jokinen says, “people pay us to keep to ourselves.” Quitting his job at 44, Jokinen was transformed into a “death fairy” by apprenticing for a year with a third-generation undertaker. Fear became respect and awe for the body as he performed grunt work, took notes, and explored rituals and traditions that were morphing into Disney-themed options. Recounting his experiences, he delivers ironic dialogue with stand-up skill and smoothly integrates technical information (“Formaldehyde changes the structure of the body’s protein, . . . making it inhospitable to the bacteria of decomposition”) and market data (“‘Celebration of life’ cremations instead of burial funerals will account for 59% of the industry by 2025”) without hindering the flow of readable insights. –Whitney Scott