Morticians in love

Cover of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior FuneralsMorticians also fall in love.

This must have been happening since the beginning of time, but only now (to the best of my knowledge) has there been a such a rush of material on the love life of those who deal with the dead.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals is a 2012 first novel by Welsh writer Wendy Jones. Set in small town Wales in the 1920s, Wilfred makes the kind of mistake that only the blurters of this world will identify with. He hears the sentence “Will you marry me Grace” come out of his mouth and crash onto the picnic rug when that was not what he was thinking at all. Almost immediately events get completely out of control. There is an unwanted pregnancy, a new love, the mother-in-law from hell and, of course,  the dead. Wilfred is at best naive, at worst a little dimwitted (especially about women), but he is unfailingly courteous to the dead. He is a decent man.

Cover of A Trick I Learned From Dead MenFast forward some eighty years and meet Lee Hart, a young mortician in London. His story is told in A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge. The content of these two books is quite similar, but the styles of writing are very different. For that reason alone they are worth reading. Lee is surrounded by death both at work, and in unfolding episodes, at home as well. Yet he remains resolutely upbeat, positive about life and ready to love and be loved. He is a kind young man whose dead customers end up on the receiving end of some of the best conversations of their lives when they finally end up in his care.

In case this is all becoming too sweet and fluffy for your liking, fear not, for Evelyn Waugh produced an acid drop of a little book in The Loved One (first published in 1948). Set in Hollywood, there are two funeral parlours, one for humans (Whispering Glades) and one for pets (Happier Hunting Grounds). Senior Mortician Mr Joyboy,  a mysterious cosmetician, a murder, several corpses and a seemingly hapless Cover of The Loved Onepoet combine to make this Black Humour at its best.

But if you want soulful and beautiful, head straight to the library DVD section and watch the Japanese film Departures in which a young musician, having lost his position in the orchestra, applies for a job in what he thought was a travel agency. Instead he ends up as a Nokanshi (encoffineer) in a small Japanese town. In this film the taboos that cling to those who deal with the dead almost ruin his marriage.

And taboos there are. Western culture has separated us from dealing with death. I have never met a mortician, never met anyone who wanted to be in that line of work. Certainly it doesn’t crop up in career guidance at school. As a result, I felt quite squeamish reading bits of these books. So it was important for me to be reminded that there is a human side to dealing with death and that it is undeniably true:

Morticians also fall in love.

A book a day…

Cover: The End of Your lIfe Book ClubThere may come a day when you will look back on all the reading you have enjoyed and think:

I could write a book on that…

Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club is one such book. With a membership of just two people, his dying mother and himself, Will Schwalbe writes so beautifully of the book bond between mother and son. And what a mother. Mary Anne Schwalbe was the first director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Her final endeavour, right up until her death, was helping to build libraries in Afghanistan.

Cover: Tolstoy and the Purple ChairBut wait, there’s more: the evocatively named Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch is the story of her extraordinary quest – steel yourselves for this – to read a book a day for the year following her beloved sister’s death. Even at the thought of 365 reads a year, I start hyperventilating. When I saw that she has produced a beautiful book where each thoughtfully identified chapter comes with its own carefully selected quotation, and that she did this with a home, a husband and four sons to look after, I could have wept.

In both these books, the recommended reads are part of a larger story, so they are redeemed from that awful listiness that can so easily happen in books about books. And that is something to bear in mind if you embark on a project like this. That and the ennobling sentiment of one of the quotes in Sankovitch’s book:

When you have possessed a book in mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.
(Henry Miller, The Books in My Life.)