How we make our exit

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TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER

The Bookworm

When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.

Most of the time, though, you don’t want to think about it.

Maybe you’re having too much fun with your life and you aren’t done playing. Perhaps you fear the journey and feel as though you haven’t fully paid for your ticket. Or maybe your bags are packed and when you gotta go — that’s OK.

So how will you leave this life and pass beyond? In the new book Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre — How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray, you’ll see that it makes all the difference in the world where in the world you’ve lived.

While she was growing up, Sarah Murray knew that her father was unsentimental about most things, particularly death. He’d always referred to himself as “organic matter” and declared that he didn’t want any fuss, funeral, or falderal over his mortal remains, so it was a surprise that he left detailed, meaningful instructions for his family to follow after he died.

This left a lot of questions in Murray’s mind. How do others around the world view their own mortality? She aimed to find out.

In Iran, Murray was in the audience during Muharram, a holy month commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, who died in 680 AD. Muharram’s grieving ritual includes loud lamenting, wailing, copious tears, and — sometimes in secret — blood.

Murray’s own British upbringing demanded a “stiff upper lip” at funerals, just as it did for her fellow countrymen — until Princess Diana died. British funerals rarely include open caskets, says Murray, but if seeing a deceased body seems like the thing to do, one could always visit the corpses in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Italy.

Murray went to Ghana to order her own fantasy coffin, a “work of art.” She traveled to China, where the dead can “take it with them” — as long as it’s burnable. She climbed a mountain in the Philippines to see a Cliffside graveyard, examined funeral pyres in Calcutta, and partook of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos.

You’d never think that such a somber subject could be so interesting, but it is in author Sarah Murray’s hands. Murray, using her beloved Fa’s death as a springboard, takes a look at funerals and funereal customs throughout the world and through history. Her interest in this subject is so keen and wide-eyed, and her writing so fresh, that she almost charms you into forgetting that you’re reading about something that some cultures dread and others welcome.

I think, if you’re looking for a lively book on a deadly subject, this is one you’ll enjoy. Undoubtedly, Making an Exit is a book to take with you wherever you’re going.

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