Under These Circumstances: Traveling For A Funeral

The twisting highways that cut through West Virginia and lead to my hometown, which is on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, are terrifying at night. The last time I made the drive, the fog was thick and low – a meteorological manifestation of my cloudy, burdened mind. Because the hills are steep and street lights are rare, the dim headlights were the only aid my vision had. I couldn’t plug in and listen to my own music because I didn’t have an auxiliary cable and there was nothing on the radio. The hum of the highway was the only sound accompanying us for the ride. My childhood friend, Karin, was sitting at a spine-straight 90 degree angle in the passenger seat and scanning the blackness for shining pairs of deer eyes. My husband was doing his best to stretch across the tiny car’s back seat and rhapsodizing about beauty, undoubtedly in an effort to help unload some of the weight Karin and I were carrying. But we were on the way to the funeral of one of our close childhood friends and our availability for consolation was erratic.


Just 48 hours earlier, my husband and I were departing DC and on our way up to New York for a five day vacation when I received the news that she had died. She died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 28. The misfortune of her passing was paired with the serendipitous fortune of having arranged to stay with Karin in New York. She was a good friend to both of us and as I slumped down on Karin’s futon in her dark Bushwick apartment, I was grateful that, if nothing else, we had each other. We spooned, ordered in food and reserved a rental car.

We had made plans to stay with our friend, Liz, at her parents’ house. Their house was our safe place growing up, a home with both a revolving front and refrigerator door. Her parents have known me since I was 6 years old, but I hadn’t seen them in a decade. Our little car slid quietly into a space in front of their house, which looked exactly as I’d remembered, around 1am. Liz and her boyfriend were waiting for us with Karin’s younger brother on the front porch, illuminated beneath the overhead light. Liz and her boyfriend had just arrived a few hours earlier themselves after a long drive from Milwaukee. We embraced and then discovered that we were gripped by manic exhaustion, the kind that makes your stomach turn while your brain still races. We tip-toed down into her basement, which was still littered with the toys from our childhood, and hung out on the worn-down couches we always hung out on, this time as adults. Contagious, unstoppable laughter erupted every ten minutes or so between the six of us as we recounted hilarious stories of the friend we’d lost. We were childishly frightened of waking Liz’s dad, which meant that our bursts of laughter were followed by a swarm of shushing, which triggered more laughter.

She would have wanted it that way, she was a funny girl, we said.

She was one of the only people I went out of my way to see during the handful of visits home I had made since high school graduation. I hated Marietta when I lived there and I couldn’t wait to move away. But during one of the last visits in Marietta I had with her, she showed me where to find love for the town. We sat side by side in Muskingum Park during the late afternoon, ripping up handfuls of grass as we talked. The meticulously green park hugs the Muskingum River and in the late afternoon, everything glows with the warmth of over-saturation and shimmers with the river’s reflections. A golden beam of light was cast over her face. She looked so unmistakably beautiful.

Her family had asked me to learn and sing a song that was special to her at the funeral. Without hesitation, I agreed. As I removed the tags from the new black clothes I’d purchased in New York with trembling hands, I choked. I didn’t know where or how to find the strength to use my vocal cords in front of a room filled with people I hadn’t seen since high school under such bewildering circumstances when I hadn’t even yet processed the news enough to cry. I bit my tongue and looked out the bedroom window and onto that flawlessly paved, wide street on which I’d learned to ride a bike, on which I’d regularly parked my first car. I went downstairs.

It was weird to see us all dressed up. I didn’t even wear heels at my wedding and yet, here we all were, balancing and clicking in unison. The three of us held hands and walked slowly into the funeral home. We’d given all the hugs and condolences we could give and we still had 45 minutes before the beginning of the ceremony. We walked like a pack of wolves who’d grown up in the wild together down the main street in town and into a bar, one of the few. With urgency, we ordered shots, ciders and beers. Tucked into the wooden booth only briefly, we left as quickly as we came. We walked back in the direction of the funeral home although we were unwilling to reenter a minute earlier than we needed to. Instead, we crossed the street and entered the park, the same park I’d sat in with her not that long ago. We walked down to the river and we sat on the stairs, chewing on our cheeks from the inside out, trying to calm our racing hearts. The sky glowed with that amber hue and I looked over at Liz and Karin, both of their faces washed over with a beauty I now know I’ll never forget.

Video: Babongo Funeral

The Babongo people, or Bongo people, in Gabon, lead fascinating lives that are wildly different from the lives many of us lead in Western civilization. The Babongo funeral is an example of this. When BBC’s Bruce Parry went to Gabon to explore, a woman and a baby died in the village he was visiting shortly after his arrival. He and his crew (one member of which was Jonathan Clay, who hosts the above video on his Vimeo account) accepted an invitation to stay and decided to film the funeral festivities. Beginning with abundant grief, the village dismisses the spirits of the dead with drumming, dancing and other rituals. This short clip from BBC’s “Tribe” is distressing and informative. After all, how we honor our dead reflects how we define ourselves.

Five perks at Tokyo’s business hotel for the dead

There’s a hot new hotel in Tokyo, and everyone’s dying to get in. You have to meet specific criteria to stay at this place … and if you can ask for a reservation, you won’t get one. Simply put, the living aren’t welcome. LISS Center Shin-Kiba calls itself a “business hotel for the dead,” a spot where corpses can wait until funerals are arranged.

So, what makes this hotel so special?

1. Obviously, it’s only for bodies, not the sentient. So, it’s awfully quet.

2. It’s a pretty exclusive spot, too – only 37 “guests” can be accommodated.

3. Bar codes keep everything in order … no need to worry about wandering into the wrong room!

4. You can pay by the hour … well, by the 12-hour block: rates start at 3,675 yen for half a day. For a funeral room, you’ll drop 2,100 yen an hour.

5. You get elbow room while planning to get rid of the body for good. Says Nokai Matsushima of LISS Sytem, “We want the families to have time to think, so they can decide on a satisfactory ceremony while their deceased relatives have a place to rest (temporarily) at our ‘business hotel.'”

[photo by pakrus via Flickr]

Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest

Unexpectedly, I ended up in Seattle.

My bags were packed for a nice New York City summer weekend (shorts, t-shirts, flip flops) but instead I took off for Seattle. Wrong clothes, wrong place, though last-minute travel still carries a thrill of spontaneity, even when you’re flying cross-country for a funeral.

Everybody has at least one friend in Seattle. It’s that kind of city where you’re bound to find that personal connection. And yet I never realized so many people lived out there–enough to fill up every cubicle on every floor of every earthquake-proof skyscraper. Back on the East Coast we like to think we invented all of America’s big cities, but no . . .

I come from the other Washington–DC–where it gets unbearably hot and sticky in the summer; where men sweat through three-piece suits and women wear impractical shoes; where any day you might pick up the Post and know somebody who’s in it and everyday there’s some kind of vigilant protest brewing on the Mall.

West coast Washington is a little less uptight but a whole lot damper. The stereotype about Seattle’s drizzled, overcast skies held true for me and in spite of summer, the day’s “high” was a shoulder-shaking 52 degrees. Dark, unorganized clouds greeted me in the morning and I started to understand the whole coffee thing–how this one city had unleashed Starbucks on the rest of us like a misunderstood gift of the heart.

The day after the funeral, another friend I was crashing with whipped out a yellow legal pad and began making a list of things to see and do in Seattle. Mostly, he suggested I do a lot eating. We made plans to meet up for lunch at a popular Russian café; my friend slipped me the address as we walked downtown. I had no map and no idea how I would find him.“Just remember,” he panted, “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest.” He ran all the words together as one and it didn’t make any sense at all.


“It’s a way to remember the streets: Jesus is for Jefferson/James. Christ–Cherry and Columbia. Made–Marion/Madison . . . and so on, you’ll see. It’s easy–just follow the streets in that order. Be at Cherry and Third at one o’clock.”

Jesus! Christ! Made! Seattle! Under! Protest!” he shouted out each word as he spun around the corner and marched uphill. Every street in Seattle goes up or down.

I didn’t expect to find him again, ever. Normally, I take pride in my sense of direction. I never get lost in new cities and if I do, I just pretend that I’m exploring. But Seattle was a little confusing for me–no matter how many American cities claim to be laid out in a grid pattern, they all have their idiosyncratic exceptions to the rules, like Germanic languages. In the other Washington, we take pride in our many exceptions to the rules–in naming streets and in running the country.

I found Pike Place Market all by myself–not so hard. I just followed the street until I could see the sea, or “the Sound” rather. The sun was thinking about maybe coming out–there was a bit of backlight that made the sky look less grey and bit more like a faded watercolor. I began to wander through the stimulus of the market, comforted by the colors or neon signs and bright vegetables. I bought English tea packed in happy little tea tins–the kind you keep even after the tea is gone. I sampled Rainier cherries and dried apples from Wenatchee. I waited alongside a pack of tourists for the handsome bearded fishmongers to fling some twelve-pound salmon through the air, shifting back and forth on my two feet and hugging myself from the cold.

When I was a teenager, Seattle was so cool–it was this whole abstract fashion concept from a faraway foreign city. Now suddenly, having finally made it to Seattle, all those grunge styles sported by midwestern mall mannequins in the 90s made perfect sense. Here I stood, in July, shivering in a T-shirt-longing for facial hair or at least a thick flannel over long underwear or a groovy knit beanie on my head.

Seattle was still cool, I realized. All the people looked so damn cool, all dressed and ready for battle. The guy selling cherries had giant black plastic horns pushed through holes in his ears and his hair cut like a vicious pixie. The bikers and skaters wore helmets with dancing flames on the sides. The girl scooping organic ice cream for tourists had a pair of matching red devil faces tattooed into her inner elbows, two evil grins flashing poisonous fangs back at me through the frosted glass. Such a pretty girl, I thought. Why devils?

And then I remembered: “Jesus Christ made Seattle under protest.” The premise was ridiculous–“What does that even mean?” I wondered. God loves everyone. I mean, He did hate a few cities in the Old Testament, too, as I recall, but I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover and Seattle is not listed once, anywhere. Also, there are actual things that Jesus Christ did protest in real life, like common hypocrisy and the gaudy merchandising outside the temple in Jerusalem.

A city built against God’s best wishes, belligerent to the core–a kind of unholy city whose streets spelled out this almost anti-Christian agenda. I wondered as I wandered back into the square-cut grid of downtown, trying to navigate myself through the streets: Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine. Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest. I kept walking south, ticking backwards through my friend’s mnemonic device: Pike–Protest . . . Under . . . Seattle . . . Made . . . checking each street sign until finally I came to “C”, Christ–Columbia–Another block and there it was, Cherry Street, and there was my friend and a window filled with hot piroshky.
That same afternoon I napped on a bench near the waterfront and when I woke up, there was sunshine-not warmth, but light, yes. Seattle is like so many northern places–one may moan about the lousy weather, but if and when the sun does shine, it’s simply glorious. Suddenly there were pretty pine trees everywhere, quiet silver waves slapping the shores of the Puget Sound, and snowy pyramid mountains in the background. If God ever did protest Seattle, it’s only because the city occupies some pretty divine real estate.

Not that God could actually have anything against Seattle. Some of His best friends live in Seattle, I thought, just like me. My friend’s funeral was still fresh in my mind, as were the lyrics of Nirvana’s song “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle“–the song whose chorus moans, “I miss the comfort of being sad.” It’s a backhanded slogan for the city that gave us grunge and caffeine addictions but also a common feeling among all travelers.

As I travel here, there, and everywhere in the world, I still wonder: Are sad places just sad on their own or do we make them sad by arriving with our own carry-on sadness? Do we ever let the destination just be the destination or do we turn to our own ideas about what it should be, based on a lifetime of prejudice and teenage notions?

My own teenage notion was to go visit Kurt Cobain’s house on Lake Washington–the one the rock star died in. It’s become a sort of insider’s drive-by tourist attraction that overlooks beautiful Lake Washington. “It’s a nice drive,” my friend kept reassuring me, promising to take me. But then we never went: too little time, too many other things to do. After 36 hours in the Emerald City, I found myself waiting in line at Sea-Tac, boarding a red-eye home, neck pillow in hand.

Perhaps Seattle was better that way. Yeah, I liked Kurt Cobain like everybody else but I was still unsure about seeing that pretty place where the icon had died–I was still coping with the pretty city where my friend had lived. And that was enough.

[All photos by Andrew Evans]

The Museum of the Funeral Service Institute of Vienna

The Funeral Service Institute of Vienna is responsible for most of the city’s undertaking. They will cremate you, find you your ideal coffin or even have you turned into a diamond. Whatever your needs after death may be, they can probably accommodate you.

They also happen to have a museum, which is open to the public but viewable by appointment only. I would highly recommend making an appointment, as you’ll get a €4.50 personal tour (€2.50 for larger groups) from the museum’s delightfully enthusiastic curator, Dr. Wittigo Keller. The exhibit is truly fascinating. From their funeral customs to their beliefs about death, the Viennese have an intriguing cultural perspective on the big sleep.

There is currently very little English-language information available about the Museum of the Funeral Service Institute of Vienna, so I’m delighted to be the first to take you on a virtual tour. Let’s start with the sitting-up coffin above.

%Gallery-88625%The Sitting-Up Coffin

Jacques-Louis David famously painted this portrait of Madame Récamier, then this coffin to go around her. Keller, the curator of The Museum of the Funeral Service Institute of Vienna (FSIV), created this coffin for a European funeral fair (which happens every three years). “It’s not practical,” he noted. Bodies must legally be buried six feet underground (below the freezing line), so one would have to dig several feet deeper to bury this coffin. Still, for the right price, he could says they could make it work.

The sitting-up coffin was one of the first things we saw at the museum, and it set the stage for an intellectual and curious look into death, rather than one filled with dread. The initial willies were shaken off, and we began discussing the new trend of creating diamonds out of the deceased’s ashes.

Diamonds Made of Dead People

You may have heard of LifeGem or another company which does this. People have been making diamonds synthetically for years (all you need is carbon, heat and pressure), and making a diamond from someone’s ashes, to some, is a beautiful way to give them metaphorical “eternal life.” Most diamonds created from human ashes are light blue, due to the chemicals in our bodies, but in the cases of people who’ve been through extensive medical treatments, the color can be different. Some companies will add chemicals post-mortum and allow you to make the diamond any color you like, but the FSIV doesn’t do that. Keller reports that it takes about 8 months to turn human ashes into a diamond, and the price for a quarter carat is about €4,680 (€14,440 for a full carat). It’s something to think about, because unless you put your desire to become a diamond in your will, your loved ones probably won’t come up with the idea.

Wearing Grandma’s ashes in a diamond necklace isn’t really any stranger than keeping her on the mantle.

Funeral Fashion

Next, we headed into a room filled with black outfits for all the various officiants in historical Viennese funerals. In addition to black, funerals in Vienna could feature red paraphernalia for military men, and for children, youths and anyone unmarried, much of the black regalia would be light blue. Keller joked that a light blue funeral meant that you were “a complete loser in this life and the next,” and added that if you’re not married, you’d best not die in Vienna.

From about 1850 to about 1930, what mourning women wore to funerals in Vienna was an extremely important matter. Every October, newspapers would publish what the proper style for funerals would be that year, and if women were spotted in last year’s style, it reflected very poorly on them and their families. Naturally, it became possible to rent the appropriate dress to wear to a funeral — in fact, this is still practiced in Vienna. Just as you might rent a gown for a ball, you can rent a mourning dress for an important funeral. Jewelry was also regulated by the annual October announcement, and Keller says that this was actually the origin of costume jewelry.

After Death Certification

Next, we headed into a room of what Keller called “rescue alarm clocks.” Production of these began around 1854 when there was mass hype about the possibility that you could seem dead and be buried, and then suddenly wake up — buried alive. There were many, many different contraptions you could purchase to prevent this horrifying fate. For example: the double-sided knife, which specially licensed doctors would stab into your heart to ensure that you were dead (you can still request this, and he says old ladies in particular sometimes do, €300), known as “after death certification.” Another rescue alarm clock was quite literally an alarm, which he demonstrated for us:

That rope would have led from a coffin directly into the dining room of the cemetery-keeper. That’s a dinner party foul.

Cultural Differences

Next, we looked at some antique children’s funeral toys, which really confused me at first. Basically, Keller explained, a funeral is viewed like a wedding, or any other important passage, and children must be taught how to behave before they can attend. So, from a very young age, children would be given funeral toys to play with so that they could learn the proper procedures and not be afraid.

On the whole, death in Vienna is regarded as a far less scary affair. Perhaps it’s because of the toys, or perhaps it’s because Austrians save money — some their whole lives — for their funerals. Farmers would buy their coffins during a good year when they had the cash and paint it to match their furniture, then use it as a bookshelf or wardrobe until they, you know, needed it. Having a savings account for your funeral or a coffin in your living room probably helps you get used to the idea of dying. “Old Viennese folk songs are all about wine and death,” said Keller. “Death goes with you to the wine tavern and follows you home at night; it’s your best friend.”

The funeral is regarded as a festival, a goodbye party. People save their whole lives to throw a good one, so that they will be remembered for that last great party they gave. “You should tell people they can learn to die in Vienna,” said Keller with a cheeky smile.

Final Details

As I mentioned, you can only visit the Museum of the FSIV by appointment, so to make one, call 501-95-4227 (country code 43) or ask your concierge. If your German’s pretty good, you can get more information here on the website. Alternatively, if you should happen to be in Vienna on the Long Night of the Museums (the first Saturday in October, when museums stay open late), you can test out the coffins. Literally. They’ll put you in a coffin, close it, and leave you there until you knock. According to Keller, last year, 1,500 people did just that. The oldest was an 88-year-old woman. “The girls are much braver than the boys,” he noted cheerfully.

My visit to Vienna was sponsored by the Vienna Tourist Board and Cool Capitals, but the opinions expressed in the article are 100% my own.