Baby boomers provide new take on death


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September 23, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

There are an estimated 78.2 million baby boomers across the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and they're starting to shove off across the River Styx for the great beyond.

This is the generation that thought it could cheat death by eternally exercising, jogging, slathering themselves with anti-aging skin care products and sunscreen, while eating truckloads of arugula washed down with a latte from Starbucks.

But alas, it's not to be, and as the poet observed so long ago: "Time and tide wait for no man."

The obituary writer as a character has been showing up with some regularity in books and films such as last year's Rumor Has It, starring Jennifer Aniston as a New York Times obituary writer.

Recent books chronicling the obituary writers' daily harvest include Marilyn Johnson's critically acclaimed The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries and Adele Q. Brown's What A Way to Go.

Others I would recommend include 52McG's, a collection of obits by the late master Robert McG. Thomas of The New York Times, and The Last Word, an anthology of New York Times obituaries edited by Marvin Siegel. (The author of this article is an obituary writer for The Sun.)

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, a reporter for Time magazine, takes a look in her recently published book, Remember Me, how boomers, even in death, continue to defy the conventional, with wacky funerals and elaborate farewells they've planned for themselves.

"Death is a weird subject. People either love talking about it or it freaks them out," said Cullen in a telephone interview from her New Jersey home the other day.

Cullen was charged by her Time editor -- sometimes editors have weird ideas -- to travel the country finding, attending, and writing about unusual funerals. Her challenge was to find the fun in funerals.

"I was told to go and find kooky funerals that boomers plan for themselves," Cullen said.

"Some might think my tour ghoulish or macabre. I am neither of those things," Cullen writes in the introduction to her book.

Her journey begins at a national undertakers' convention in Nashville, Tenn., where Cullen checked out the latest in "death merchandise," such as a line of Ethereal Cosmetics, burial clothes and elaborate hearses sometimes called "funeral coaches."

Cullen caught up with Batesville, the leading casket maker in the nation, as a tractor-trailer loaded with the company's products pulled up to a New Jersey hotel, where local funeral directors eagerly anticipated seeing the company's latest models.

They were not disappointed, reports Cullen, and went gaga over the Marsellus 700 Masterpiece -- an $18,500 solid mahogany casket that weighs 540 pounds empty -- the absolute Rolls-Royce of caskets, which takes four weeks to build and sports 40 layers of finish, all hand-applied.

Notables who traveled to eternal bliss in the Marsellus include Ronald Reagan, Mickey Mantle and Emily Post.

Cullen writes of her visit to Ernie Wolfe, a Los Angeles art dealer, who sells African art and caskets he imports from Ghana.

"Wolfe's casket, which he is keeping for himself, is in the shape of a nine-foot lobster, and he keeps it in a corner of his shop where he says he looks at it every morning," Cullen said.

Cullen writes of her visit to Nederland, Colo., home of the annual Frozen Dead Guys Days festival, which was inspired by the late Bredo Morstoel, who died in Norway in 1989.

After the old gent was shipped from his native land to relatives in Nederland, they decided to keep him frozen in a large freezer in what became a "backyard cryonics lab," she writes, rather than cremating or burying his body.

"What I stumbled into instead was a curious experiment in death celebration, or the story of a community that initially recoiled from death but came to embrace, laugh at, and profit from it," she wrote.

Highlights of the festivities include the Cryogenic Parade, the Frozen Dead Guy Lookalike Contest and the Costumed Polar Bear Plunge. And what would a Frozen Dead Guys Days festival be without a Coffin Race?

Cullen turned up what might become a trend when she visited Ramsey Creek Preserve, a South Carolina cemetery that specializes in "green burials" for those who were environmentally active in life and wish to be biodegradably useful in death.

Unembalmed bodies are buried in their natural state in a cemetery that is devoid of upright tombstones.

"They dig a hole, put you in it, and soon you're food for the wildflowers," Cullen writes. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What's more, your interment there helps to conserve the ground above and around you."

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