Michael Washburn has written a fine story for the March-April issue of The University of Chicago Magazine: “Decomposure” (The deck: “Mortician, medievalist, and video sage Caitlin Doughty tries to change the way Americans think about death”). Washburn starts strong:
Located on Santa Monica Boulevard and abutting Paramount Studios, Hollywood Forever is one of Los Angeles’s oldest, most idiosyncratic cemeteries. Marble obelisks tower over squat tombstones of Armenian immigrants, the latter boasting detailed photographic etchings, as if someone managed to render ’70s-era wedding Polaroids into stone. Peacocks amble around the graves of Fay Wray and Rudolph Valentino. Punk titan Johnny Ramone is memorialized with an eight-foot bronze statue of the musician playing guitar. Recently a dilapidated graveyard on the brink of closure, Hollywood Forever has become a vibrant public venue after changing hands in 1998. The cemetery hosts movie nights and a popular Día de los Muertos festival. The rock band the Flaming Lips has played there.
This “is how cemeteries used to be,” says Caitlin Doughty, AB’12 (Class of 2006). “In the Middle Ages, in the Victorian Period, … cemeteries were places where commerce took place, and lovers walked through the graves to meet at night. You had this engagement with the cemetery as a community place, which we don’t really have anymore.” This collision point between somber burial ground and riotous rock venue, a space that survived modern economic realities by resurrecting a medieval communal impulse, was a fitting setting when, on a quickly cooling Friday afternoon last November, Doughty taught me how to die.
That “taught me how to die” line is killer. Doughty is a profile writer’s dream. She produces and stars in a YouTube series titled Ask a Mortician. She has a forthcoming book with the great title—great in a twisted way—Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematory). She founded the Order of the Good Death, an artists’ collective devoted to embracing mortality. Doughty, in typically fine phrasing by Washburn, “wants to disenthrall us from our pervasive death denial.”
Washburn’s dexterity with the language is much of what makes the story so good.
She’s droll, laid-back, and eager to talk about how long it takes an unburied body to skeletonize (even with all variables taken into account, we go from fleshy corpse to flinty skeleton with alacrity).
“Fleshy corpse to flinty skeleton with alacrity”—wish I’d written that. And:
Doughty works along the fault lines of natural repulsion and cultural taboo, which demands deft navigation. Dissecting cats and frogs is enough to repulse many kids, so the prospect of having them endure exposure therapy with human corpses—her vision taken to its most extreme—lodges in the throat.
“Fault lines of natural repulsion and cultural taboo” is really nice, especially using “fault lines” in a story set in Los Angeles. One more:
And with that Doughty decided that she needed to become a mortician. She moved to San Francisco, where she stopped reading about charnel houses and started working in one.
Vivid, distinctive, apt, smooth. That’s good prose.
Washburn’s work hits every mark. The story is informative. (Did you know viewing an open casket is pretty much just an American thing? Me either.) It takes care to establish cultural and historical context. The author knows when to quote his subject. (“An embalmed body . . . it is not an actual dead body in a way. It’s a strange wax effigy that the dead body has become. You’re not really seeing a dead person—you’re seeing an idea of a dead person, a metaphor for a dead person. There’s a distance that is almost the same as closing the casket.”) There’s some judicious use of narrative to keep things moving. And it sure does fulfill Molly Ivins’ injunction for nonfiction: “Y’all can’t make this shit up.”
There are bits that stick with you for a while after you close the magazine:
As for Doughty, she desires the most natural exit: putrefaction.
“Yeah,” she says, “I think the idea of being laid out on a beautiful plot of land and my body becoming a glorious burst of decomposition. There are so many animals designed to eat that. . . . Nature is so beautifully designed to dispose of us.”
“Decomposure” is the best alumni magazine story I’ve read in weeks. First rate from first word to last.