~by Tom Jokinen
When Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen was offered to me for review by the publisher, I knew this was one request I couldn't pass up. I've pretty much always been interested in death and death rituals, and one of my sisters seriously considered becoming a mortician at one point. (Who knows? She still might.) Some people probably find me and my family a bit morbid--my mother also exhibits some of the same proclivities--but hey, whether their own or someone else's, death is an important part of anyone's life and we're all going to have to deal with it. So why not take some interest in it? That being said, I was very much looking forward to reading Curtains, which sounded like it would be both an intriguing and amusing exploration of modern funerary practices.
In 1963, Jessica Mitford published her groundbreaking work The American Way of Death, which changed the funeral industry forever. In 1998, the highly influential book was updated, revised, and republished as The American Way of Death, Revisited. But the industry and people's attitudes surrounding death continued to change and that's where Jokinen's book Curtains, published in 2010, comes in. Putting his job as a producer for CBC Radio on hold, he became an apprentice at a family owned funeral home in Winnipeg to learn just what all goes into preparing a person's body and family for its final rest, especially now that more and more people are choosing cremation over traditional burials. From embalming techniques and cremation, to working with families and suppliers, to trucking around bodies for pickups and deliveries, to intense workplace politics, he has a lot to learn. In addition to describing what it exactly means to be an undertaker these days, Jokinen also provides brief glimpses into a wide variety of services and traditions. He explains how funeral homes are responsible for helping to create an appropriate and often highly individualized ceremony and accompanying rituals. And as the industry continues to evolve, there are more options than ever.
The subtitle, Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training, is somewhat misleading. I mean, I expected the book to be about Jokinen's training as an undertaker. In a way it is, but more so it is a lighthearted examination of how those in Canada and the United States deal with their dead. Curtains is less about Jokinen's own experiences--although those are an important part of the book--and more about his observation of others'. Occasionally the book seems confused as to what its focus should be, but it is certainly fascinating material either way. Jokinen also has a tendency to meander from subject to subject, giving the tone of the book a conversational feel, only to return to an earlier topic to expand upon it further. One, albeit fairly minor, problem with this is that frequently people and specific details are not thoroughly introduced but are simply explained or reexplained as they come up in a particular context.
I suppose Curtains can be loosely described as investigative journalism; the back cover labels it as a memoir, but that doesn't seem quite right, either. However you choose to define it, the book is an interesting, and yes, even entertaining read. Jokinen's tone is friendly and amiable; he is able to easily find the humor in the many situations he faced or witnessed, but at the same time he is able to remain respectful. Despite his brief explanation, I never completely understood why he decided to work on this project. But even given that, I didn't find it strange that he would pursue it; I mean, death and the events surrounding it certainly interest me. However, I would like to know what Jokinen went on to do after his internship ended beyond writing Curtains. His book may not have been particularly academic, but ultimately it really was quite informative and was indeed fascinating.