To Deadsville

A Year in
The Funeral

Tim Matson
(Chelsea Green)
Tim Matson is better known for telling us how to build ponds. His Earth Ponds is a best seller amongst us ex-hippy types. But in Deadsville, he says that he came to one of those crises so well known to Dante, and, to purge himself of the spooks, he decided to find out all there is to know about death and dying.

He interviews, coffin makers, heads of funeral societies, cremators, funeral directors, flower people, organists, astrologers, and carvers. His hope is by understanding those who handle the dead, he will be able to better handle his own death.

It's the world of funeral business reformers that Matson spends most time with, and whose stories seem to be most vital. There is, for example, the cremator who fought the Vermont funeral directors establishment to create an inexpensive service for the families of the deceased. He tells us he has "a talent," which he learned about when digging a grave, finding a vault which was "all busted." Someone had to get those bodies out of that hole, so they could rebury them along with the newly-dead:

    Some of the people who were watching, they couldn't eat all day long after that. And I wasn't really affected. It didn't bother me...I knew I had an ability.

Naturally, when we are immersed in the subject of death, there are a few things that pop up that might make a reader squeamish. A visit to the storage room at the medical school where the bodies get dissected can get a bit hairy.

    It's an eerie sight, twenty-five bodies resting between semesters like campers in mummy bags waiting for the rising bell.

Matson's reaction is not unlike what most of us would feel,

    I feel shaken by what I've seen. Not only the lifeless gray face and the patches of tissue and hair in the stainless-steel pails, but the blunt finality of death. I can't help feeling that life is rushing by way too fast and I'm squandering it.

Besides the stink of the dissecting and burial rooms, there are some interesting bits of information sprinkled around and about. Years ago some of us read Jessica Mitford's wonderfully droll The American Way of Death. As a result, there was a boom in "memorial societies" for those of us who wanted to get planted without it costing us, if you will, an arm and a leg. The good news is that these societies still exist; more importantly, they continue to defy the entrenched funeral businesses. Their national organization is called FAMSA --- The Funeral and Memorial Society of America.

On the downside, if you plan to donate your body to a medical school, or your parts to various organizations, you may be S.O.L. By law, no matter your wishes, written or not, your family has final say-so over the disposal of your remains.

§     §     §

It is a mildly interesting journey that the author takes us on, but, unfortunately, his writing style may drive some of us to an early grave.

    W e ignore death until it hits. Just bake and shake, very liberating. But if we are so enlightened, why all the depression and anxiety? Perhaps down deep, the white worm doesn't like being ignored.

Or, when discussing shipping bodies by air, Matson comments that it seems "An extreme way to get more leg room on the plane." And his summary of present-day American life comes to be as tedious as the tedium he wants to describe:

    The planet is crowded and polluted, but instead of dealing with those problems, everybody's zonked out watching videos and surfing the net. Are we turning into high-tech vampires living vicarious lives, and ever longer ones at that? But hey, aren't vampires supposed to live forever.

But hey indeed...A good editor would never have allowed such supercilious sentiments into what could have been a vital exegesis on a problem, the problem, we all face.

The whole of Round-Trip has the smell of an idea hammered together in a three page précis, and then written to order for the publisher. It's a mushroom-and-olive pizza that's been sitting around in the freezer waiting for an order. A more conscientious writer would have come up with a better structure, done his research more thoroughly, spent more time shaping it. In other words, the subject deserves a far graver treatment.

--- F. C. Winklemann

Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg come to us via the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. They have here compiled twelve tapes, an hour-and-a-half each, of discussion of the basics of Buddhism along with a session of practice. This consists of a "guided meditation" in which Goldstein or Salzberg leads the student through one of many types of meditation, including Emotional States Meditation, Bare Attention, Walking Meditation and Eating Meditation.

The narrative portions of the tape include personal experiences of the two as they explored Buddhism in Thailand, Burma, India, and in the United States (where they set up the IMC). Their comments range from considerable insight into the intricacies of Buddhist theory and practice, to some interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes long-winded descriptions of their own adventures in the world of what some might believe to be an exotic world. These are often examples of what we should --- or should not --- look for in practice.

For example, Goldstein tells of a time in Burma when he was immersed in intensive all-day meditation. It seems there was a temple construction project going on at the same time and the racket was, understandably, driving him bananas. After some hesitation, he told his teacher that it was very noisy, that is was disturbing his meditation. He explained that this hammering and sawing and banging went on most of the day, and it was hard to concentrate. After a pause, the master said, "Did you note it?" Nothing else. Goldstein thinks, at first, "Did I note it? Of course I noted it." But then, on reflection --- he sees through to the other side, the message that his guru is trying to give him.

Ms. Salzberg's comments can be astute, or they can wander maddeningly --- especially for those of us who have listened to the tapes two or three times. Her asides on American politics and her tales of dealing with the monsoons of Calcutta, dead pigs and cows in the flood-waters, can go on and on. But she is practiced, and no less insightful when it comes to the theories of Buddhism, especially the heart of it: that all of life is pain; and, equally important --- that there is a way out of that pain.

§     §     §

I had a chance to invest considerable time in these twelve guided meditations. I live on the border, and regularly commute back and forth between Mexico and the United States. After the events of September 11, I suddenly found that the time necessary for crossing had gone up by a factor of ten. Because of nineteen wilful men, millions of us innocents had suddenly become objects of intense suspicion and scrutiny.

So, each day, I got my car into the line, stuck one of the guided meditations into the car cassette machine, half-closed my eyes, and focused on the sun being reflected back from the bumper of the car in front of me. I would listen to, for instance, Goldstein hypnotically telling me that I should let my thoughts "be as the clouds, passing peacefully overhead." He and I thus drifted quietly towards the border.

This is no small trick, for I do believe it was as noisy there in line as in his retreat in Burma. He was, fortunately, there to guide me. I might start drifting into my own thoughts, but then his voice would pop up every few minutes to keep me mindful of my task --- despite the noise and honking and guys trying to sell me statues of Bart Simpson.

I found, after a couple of weeks, that with his help --- Goldstein's, not Simpson's --- it was possible to maintain a semi-meditative state without mashing the car in front of me or inadvertently squashing one of the noisy salesfolk.

--- Carlos Amantea


Carolyn Cooke
Mr. Sargent is now getting along in years. He is an artist. His wife Martha has decided they must leave the house, move to "Frog Pond." She says,

    "No more cooking! Frog Pond Village serves two meals a day...." Frog Pond Village was a city of ancients. Nearly everyone they knew who was still alive lived there in apparently merry fellowship. They dined together in the vast dining room, took buses into Symphony. The daily death toll was posted on a cork boards in the mail room. Martha couldn't wait to get in.

This could be one of those semi-sweet tales of two people getting old, giving up their world of books and pictures, learning more than they want to know about their children. But Cooke is subtle, and adds a delicious twist to this title story.

As a painter, Sargent --- note the name --- had produced "Least bitterns and grebes among the cattails in Olmstead's Fens, a Hepplewhite chair seen through a shallow bow window and a lavender pane, the old delivery truck from Pierce's, the Christmas Eve candles in the window..." But then, one day, as wife Martha is in the bathroom, he looks through her dresser and finds a picture she had sketched many years ago, before she had given up art --- one of an "odd little man who used to rent bungalows near the Sargents' old summer place in Maine:"

    he, sitting on a wood block in front of a shack whose roof was an upturned dory. He wore a woolen shirt and dirty trousers and seemed to be looking at the artist --- at Martha ---- with dull, violent eyes, one larger than the other. Where had Martha gotten this --- vision? It was most certainly hers; behind the man and the shack a hill rolled dangerously backward, and the large birch trees at the top of the painting angled strangely and threatened the tiny trees she had drawn at the bottom...the whole in a rather cunning disequilibrium.

"How had she known?" he asks himself. "Overall there was something --- cunning in it."

What our storyteller manages to do here is convey a something that must be among the most difficult in fiction. That is, how does one give us a narrator who manages to tell us, in his own words, that he is the opposite of what he thinks himself to be; and --- as important --- how to do this in a way that is subtle, not ham-fisted?

Sargent has been painting all these years; the house is crammed with his paintings. Yet, with this... cunning... discovery of Martha's painting, we suddenly see that for all his pride in his works, nailed up everywhere, he's probably one of those mediocre painters who take over the parks of a Sunday afternoon. Wife Martha (who gave up painting early on for him and for the children) was probably the real artist in the family. The irony is handed out to us in the very first line of the story, her telling him, "I don't care if you're Pablo Picasso, I won't live in a museum!" She is the Picasso; and he is so bad that he doesn't get it.

It's a chillingly effective tale, with its wonderful asides, and the bang-up climax. The book contains nine stories in all. Three are fair to middling, three are quite good, and three --- "The Bostons," "The Sugar-Tit," and "Twa Corbies" --- are so good that you might consider dropping this review post haste and ringing up your favorite book seller and getting you own copy.

--- Lolita Lark

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