Guest Column

The baby boomers confront mortality

It’s amazing how little thought we have given to two questions: how we got here and why we have to leave so soon

Jane O’Hara July 1 1996
Guest Column

The baby boomers confront mortality

It’s amazing how little thought we have given to two questions: how we got here and why we have to leave so soon

Jane O’Hara July 1 1996

The baby boomers confront mortality

Guest Column

It’s amazing how little thought we have given to two questions: how we got here and why we have to leave so soon

Jane O’Hara

A couple of weeks ago, a flyer came through my mail slot cordially inviting me to an open house. Refreshments would be served to music played by a classical duo. (Tasteful.) A children’s area would be made available. (Thoughtful.) There was even going to be a draw for a color TV. (Commercial! Where do I sign up?)

There was just one catch. It was an open house for a funeral parlor. Not that I’m squeamish. I’ve visited the dead many times, generally finding these places orderly and comforting. After the big shock of a death, there are never any surprises in a funeral home: the grief is controlled, the carpets are clean and the coffee is always hot. But, as a rule, this is one branch of the service sector where the customer’s operating principle is “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

I was struck by the chutzpah of so openly marketing mortality. And these were no down-at-the-heels undertakers hoping to drum up some quick business. This was a class establishment known for out-sourcing some of Toronto’s wealthiest citizens.

Maybe they hold open houses in brassy New York City or breezy San Francisco, but in Canada, morticians have always kept a low profile, hovering on the margins of grief.

They don’t rent billboards, offer discounts or take to cold-calling customers.

Clearly, something was afoot if this staid old funeral parlor had decided to open its doors, incur the wrath of its clientele and throw a little light on its secret services. And wrath-incur, they did. My mother thought holding an open house was a deplorable stunt. My aunt seconded her. What next, they wondered? Multilevel marketing?

But my pals, in their 40s and 50s, didn’t get very worked up about it. At worst, some thought it “creepy,”at best, “postmodern.” All were curious. After all, we are the age group these avant-garde funeralists were targeting, what with their offer of free coffee and crayons all round for the kids. We are their future. When boomers start moving on to their final rewards, the demographics of dying will be a bonanza for the embalmers.

In our short but self-important stay so far, we’ve proven ourselves both nosier and noisier than our parents. We have found meaning in our enlightened obsession with the everyday things they took for granted. It’s my guess, if this trend continues, we won’t take death lying down. Sure it may diminish us, but it won’t stop us from discussing it over cappuccino.

Given the plague of AIDS and the nightly fiesta of death on television, it’s surprising we’ve come so late to this quandary of dying. But we have been busy. When you consider all the energy we’ve spent debating whether to use a choke chain on the new puppy or

whether to go with limestone in the bathroom, it’s amazing how little thought we have given to the only two questions that really matter: how we got here and why we have to leave so soon.

I have a friend, just turned 50, who told me she’s never been to a funeral parlor, never seen a dead body. That, to me, is like someone saying they’ve never been to a mall. But things are changing. It’s pretty common these days to find the subject of death surfacing at dinner parties. Full-length obituaries are making a comeback. And no longer are dying writers leaving the last word to other writers. They’re documenting their own deaths: the endgame of first-person journalism.

“I am practising making entries in my journal to record my passage into nonexistence,” wrote New York intellectual Harold Brodkey before he died in January. Two weeks ago, Canadian comedian Marjorie Gross died but left us laughing after writing a wildly funny piece in The New Yorker, entitled “Cancer becomes me.” Timothy Leary, the guru of the Me Generation, was another recent departure. Trendsetter that he was, he wanted to commit himself to the hereafter in real time on the Internet. Ashes to ashes, download to dust. He didn’t manage that, but in farewell gave us something better—his recipe for Leary Biscuits. Melted cheese with marijuana on a Ritz cracker.

They didn’t serve Leary Biscuits at the funeral parlor’s open house. When I arrived at the door of the white building, the brass was polished, the attendants smiling. “Feel free to walk around,” said a man in a strategically dark suit. “All three floors are open.”

So I wandered. As advertised, a flute and harp sounded in the middle distance. The main floor was set up with various displays showing the funeral home’s religious versatility: Eastern Orthodox, Buddhist, Jewish, or a slimmed-down memorial service. One floor below were the caskets and cremation urns, all models and makes, for rent or purchase, some in high-gauge steel and others made out of chipboard. The caskets made out of steel were an ungodly price. But they were apparently “safe from the elements” and came with a sticker that said: “Because you care.” For $195, ashes would be shipped to some preacher in British Columbia who would sprinkle them in the Pacific.

The embalmer was on hand, too. He was in his tool shop at the back of the funeral parlor, talking about lip glue and plastic surgery wax, as happy and chatty as Mr. Rogers in his neighborhood. I counted about 10 other onlookers. I was the youngest. People spoke in whispers, which made it hard to eavesdrop, but I managed, learning among other things that it takes about three hours for a body to be vaporized during cremation.

On my way out, I was thanked for coming and handed a videotape, in case I had “any other questions.” I did, but I knew they wouldn’t be answered by watching my VCR.

Allan Fotheringham is on assignment. Jane O’Hara, a former Maclean’s writer, now teaches journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.