Michael Largo, the author of Final Exits, an “illustrated encyclopedia of how we die,” was psyched when he found out I wanted to pair him up for an Author2Author with Lisa Cullen to talk about her new book, Remember Me, a “lively tour of the new American way of death.” You see, two decades, when Cullen’s doctor warned him that he’d probably be dead in six months if he kept up his way of life, Cullen responded by pre-ordering his tombstone. When he didn’t die, he recalls, “the monument company threatened to grind my name off and sell it to someone else if I didn’t pick it up. So I persuaded six friends to help me carry this monstrously awkward stone up to my filth floor walk-up apartment on St. Marks Place. This marker in my living room turned out to be the wildest 400 pound granite Post-It note money could buy. In fact, the heavy reality of it got me over the immortality mindset of my twenties and was ultimately a wake-up to modify many a harmful lifestyle.”
Michael Largo: Lifestyle, as I’ve discovered, is the real cause for nearly 50% of all deaths. How do we actually die? That is the question I wanted to know. Of course, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) puts out the top ten causes each year, but that is such a tablet of saccharin in the sea of data, some of which you’ll find in Final Exits. While researching your book, did you find cause of death to be influential in burial choices?
Lisa Cullen: I thought I ought to start by letting you know that Final Exits has been selected for admission to my family’s library of bathroom books. Its quick, funny, bizarre, bite-size reads makes the book perfect for the smallest room of the house. I apologize if you had grander ambitions, but, to my family, this placement is in fact the highest honor… I must however admit I question your moorings. What kind of person knows that more than 500 people died between 1999 and 2003 from economy-class syndrome? Or that halitosis can lead to cancer? Or that “in 1987, Texan Walter Mitchell killed his wife because she was about to say the words ‘New Jersey’”? Your tale about keeping a tombstone in your apartment only deepens my suspicions, friend.
But you pose a serious and interesting question. My first instinct was to answer no, that the cause of death did not seem to reflect upon the mode of burial among the people I profiled in my book who chose unusual and personal send-offs. After some reflection, however, I thought of the mother of three with cancer who chose a “green” burial in a nature preserve in South Carolina. I did not get to interview her before her passing, but it occurs to me that her unimaginable pain must have been eased somewhat by knowing she had chosen to go as one with nature. I think it would for me. And in the case of the Port Authority worker who died on 9/11, his empty casket was held in the mausoleum until his remains could be found.
Do you think the fact that a book like yours can exist means we Americans perceive death differently today? In other words, does our generation see humor in death? And if so, why now? The world just isn’t so funny these days.
16 October 2006 | author2author |
I’m pleased as punch to be participating in the Online Book Fair this week as part of their guest blogger series. It’s absolutely worth your time to check out what the passionate readers they’ve brought together on one web page have to say.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the contentious relationship between bookbloggers and critics who review books for newspapers and magazines. I have a foot in both camps, but a good portion of my sympathies lie with the bloggers, and I’ll tell you why. I think we can all agree that the declining state of arts (and especially literary) coverage in the mainstream media is regrettable—and while we can recognize that many journalists covering a cultural beat are doing their best to keep the standard flying, it’s also true that many outlets are cutting back on their coverage of the book world and what coverage they do provide has a tendency to stay in safe, comfortable territory, too often limiting itself to puff pieces on recognizable bestselling authors and handwaving “trends.”
Bookbloggers can see what types of literature aren’t getting covered, and they have the means of production to create their own coverage. Some of them just want to tell you about the great novel they’ve read; others may adopt a more slick approach…one that could, in time, lead some enterprising mainstream outlet to recruit them. But what’s crucial is this: People who love books are encouraging others to read books, celebrating literature not as a collection of icons but as a endlesss inventory of stories (or theses, in the case of nonfiction) to be read, discussed, maybe even reread. And that’s always worth celebrating.
5 October 2006 | events |