How do you make a diamond out of cremated human remains? What’s the most environmentally friendly way to return to the earth? What kind of person becomes a funeral director these days? Who would pay $62,000 to be mummified? What’s a fun way to be buried at sea?
Want to know? I did. Shortly after I gave birth to my first child, I strapped said child on my back and set off across the country to find out. I attended the Frozen Dead Guy Festival in Nederland, Colo. I visited a mummifier in a pyramid in Salt Lake City, Utah. I hiked around “green” cemeteries in Westminster, S.C., and Marin County, Calif. I crashed many funerals, including a tango party in Washington, D.C., a Hindu cremation in Windsor, Conn., and a days-long Hmong celebration in St. Paul, Minn.
The result was a book, “Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death” (HarperCollins, 2006). It’s a good book to have in your shelf if a) you’re planning a funeral and looking for ideas; b) you lay awake nights wondering why our culture mourns death instead of celebrating life; c) you like the cute pink hearse on the cover; d) you take Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selections very seriously; e) you’re about to get on a plane and your idea of a good read is a quirky, funny travelogue through mortuary schools and funeral homes.
“Remember Me” took a personal twist. During the reporting and writing of the book, my mother, Hiroe Takeuchi Reilly, became gravely ill with colon cancer. I missed a deadline for my final draft because I was in Japan by her side as she underwent an emergency operation. She clung on, witnessing not only the publication of my book but also the arrival of her eleventh grandchild, my second daughter. We baptized my daughter at her bedside in hospice. She died shortly afterward, in 2008, at age 65. My father, Thomas J. Reilly, to whom I dedicated this book, died nine months later of a broken heart. We celebrate their lives every day.
Excerpt from TIME magazine: “Opening the Box”
Demographically speaking, the future looks bright for the $3.5 billion casket industry.
What people said about “Remember Me”
This intriguing survey of America’s rapidly mutating funeral customs probes the one force mightier than death: consumerism. Journalist Cullen explores the innumerable ways in which funerals are being personalized, publicized, economized, commercialized, trivialized and, perhaps, humanized. Among the many offbeat memorials she unearths are funerals with Hawaiian, tango or Harley-Davidson themes, as well as beer-themed caskets, eco-friendly funerals, “human diamonds” manufactured from a loved one’s ashes, and a Colorado town that celebrates a do-it-yourself cryonics pioneer with its Frozen Dead Guy Days Festival, now a major tourist attraction. In the middle of it all, she finds, is an uneasy funeral industry, squeezed at the bottom by cheap Chinese caskets and the vogue for no-frills cremation and challenged at the top by finicky boomer customers demanding more elaborate and symbol-laden rites (one poignant graveside dove-release attracted a passing hawk, with off-message results.) Cullen isn’t much given to muckraking or dark pensées; “Death is a big, huge bummer” is as morbid as she gets. Her set-piece retrospectives on the guests of honor at unusual send-offs sometimes seem dully eulogistic. But for the most part her vivid reportage and wryly sympathetic tone feel anything but embalmed.
Quirky, sometimes weird answers can be found in Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. In stores Tuesday, Remember Me dissects how Americans, particularly baby boomers, are transforming the old 6-feet-under.
People Magazine (rated three out of four stars)
Ashes to ashes, dust to…diamonds? Transforming cremains into bling is one of the wacky trends chronicled in Cullen’s bouncy—and often quite funny—account of “shopping-after-death options.” The TIME writer discusses possibilities such as “green burials” of unembalmed bodies (as featured on Six Feed Under), caskets carved to look like everything from a a bottle of beer to a 1958 Corvette, and plastination—which basically turns a corpse into a mannequin. A chapter dedicated to the traditional Japanese funeral of her own grandfather in ’04 mixes humor and sadness. Ultimately, this quick, lively study reveals a deep truth: that death and its rituals “can make the living appreciate the here and now.”
Mary Roach (author of “Stiff” and “Spook”)
Possibly I’m the wrong person to ask, but I found this book fascinating. A must-read for anyone who plans on dying. Like a good undertaker, this book is gently funny and surprisingly comforting.
Cathi Hanauer (author of “Sweet Ruin” and “My Sister’s Bones” and editor of “The Bitch in the House”)
Subtly funny, impeccably research, and utterly fascinating, Remember Me may well be the liveliest book about death ever written.
“Remember Me” cleverly explores how baby boomers are transforming the funeral industry.
Death is a tragedy, a philosophical conundrum, and a biological inevitability – but it is also a business.
Entrepreneur Magazine – Hot List 2007
“She is pretty cute based on her picture on the inside cover though. This woman has no business putting words on paper. She should be in a classy lingerie catalogue. I’m talking Sears catalogue for sure, maybe Nordstom.”
press about “remember me”
Los Angeles Times – Joel Stein on dying, the L.A. way.
Los Angeles Times – News article on MyDeathSpace.com.
CNN – Interview transcript