REVIEW: This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist
Journalist Erica Buist travels to seven death festivals around the world (Nepal, Madagascar, Indonesia, Sicily, Japan, Mexico and New Orleans) in search of better attitudes towards death
After the death of her father-in-law, journalist Erica Buist decided to travel to seven death festivals around the world, in an attempt to understand how different societies deal with grief, and how people are able to move past the knowledge that they’re going to die in order to live happily day-to-day. In the course of her journey, Erica explores both fundamental and unexpected questions around death anxiety, including: How does knowledge of our mortality make us act like jerks? Do you need to be religious to reduce mortal terror? Why is this New Orleans voodoo priestess talking to a doll thirty seconds into our interview? Why did a man in Derby keep his wife’s corpse in the bedroom? Does death anxiety really make us more racist, and men more amenable to violence against women? Is it OK to take a selfie with a skull? Do older people in California really believe an $8,000 injection of teenagers’ plasma will re-colour their grey hair?
We apparently read a lot of books about death and funerals here. So of course when I saw this cover (party on skeletons!) and read the blurb, I dove right in. I could sum up the blurb as “Overanxious British journalist attends worldwide death festivals to try and overcome her fear of death.”
Erica Buist does have good cause to be a bit twitchy about death and corpses given how her fiancé’s father died in his London home and went undiscovered for seven days. Seriously people, if you know someone who lives alone, check on them – just a text or call every few days, no need to go all gonzo the way Erica initially does – to make sure they’re still alive and kicking. A friend of mine also had this happen to a brother-in-law and as she said, the results weren’t pretty. Erica doesn’t get too descriptive but the delicate hints are enough to paint the picture.
Now terrified that everyone she knows could drop dead Erica gets obsessed with checking on them and afraid to go out. Only by going down an Internet rabbit hole and reading about death celebrations worldwide does she pull out of her steep spiraling dive. With an understanding significant other holding down the home fort, she spends five years sallying out across the globe to see how other cultures deal with death.
After reading the book, I have to say that most everyone else in it handles death and the thought of death better than Erica does. She mentions telling two men (one Mexican, one Indonesian) how people from her country (Britain) fear actually being dead and asks if they and their countrymen feel the same way. They both look at her as if she’s nuts.
Her experiences are varied and she hooks up with some gracious hosts as well as some hired guides who shepherd her along. I have to say that I found the times when she was an invited guest or actual sorta family member (the ceremony in Thailand was with her father’s second family there) to feel less “voyeuristic” and intrusive. The frankly tourist experience she has in Mexico is horrible and reminds me of what the Amish say about people coming to stare at them. She does include some discursive thoughts on racism (New Orleans), classism (Santa Muerte), and white male privilege (California) but never addresses the privilege that allowed her to spend so much time and money pursuing this quest.
I learned a lot about how different countries and cultures around the world experience and handle death and totally agree that most of them do a better job – emotionally as well as environmentally – then do many Western countries. It would have been nice if she had included even a little bit about how Western countries are beginning to move away from the century old, industrial practices that she deplores. She does appear to be more at ease with death though as she’s an atheist I’m still not sure she’s comfortable with her fear of “being dead.” C+