It’s Dias de los Muertos time here in Los Angeles and many other places touched by the goofy-syncretic Catholic paganism we associate with seeing our besties, our daily barrista, and even our bosses en calavera, surrounded by bouquets of spicy-pungent marigolds, surrounded by pumpkin-patches, bats and hags from other more Euro traditions of honoring the departed.
When I met Caleb Wilde at a Toluca Lake coffee shop earlier this week, he would have been a great contestant on the old game show, “What’s My Line?” You’d never guess his job by looking at him, even though it’s the season of sugar skulls, dancing skeletons, jumbo-packs of goblin Peeps, and pumpkin-spice lattes.
He’s tall, solid, and home-grown in that distinctly Midwestern way, dressed in a graphite cotton tee instead of his usual dark suit and tie. His fresh skin glows. His eyes are clear. Sturdy shoulders, easy smile. His handshake is not clammy or lingering like the great beyond, it’s as seemingly warm and firm as the here and now. There’s a passing resemblance to Justin Timberlake on a particularly wholesome day, or perhaps a big leagues pitcher on his way up, minus the chaw and the spit, because that would be rude when there are ladies present.
Caleb Wilde is funeral director. In fact, he’s 6th generation – both sides of his family have done this work, and this legacy inspires his new book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life” (HarperOne/October 2017, ISBN 978-0-06-246524-5; hardcover, $25.99 ) and blogs under the same title. Caleb is a partner at his family’s business, Wilde Funeral Home, in Parkesberg, PA, carrying on a profession to which he brings challenging perspectives and disarming humor.
In language that can be stark, grisly, but not gratuitous, his book, blogs and podcasts invite us to engage in what he calls “active remembering” of the dead. He contrasts this approach with false Stoicism, where we command ourselves to snap out of it, that diminishes our own day-to-day happiness. Caleb writes that active remembering, which may be as simple as speaking the name of beloved dead person aloud, especially when others are present, can ease pain and anxiety among the living.
As he digs into his Power Lunch (chicken breast, brown rice, glass of water), he shrugs, “Until recently, Americans understood where they were in the food chain. People who lived on farms or in rural areas knew exactly where their chicken dinner came from. Infant mortality was high, women often died in childbirth, people got struck by lightning, and bitten by rattlesnakes, so people had to touch death and it touched them a lot more than today.”
I ask him what’s happened since then. He chews slowly, then says “Television. Seeing violence on TV, whether it’s the news in real-time, or a violent movie, is not the same as touching something that was thrashing around in life just a few minutes ago.”
He goes on to explain that television and technology are just the most blatant illustrations of how the professional funeral industry has wrested the death experience from individuals. The result is that many of us are bewildered by our grief, and flummoxed by contact with death in its many forms.
Caleb explains that a century ago, a body was laid out in the home of the deceased prior to burial. A number of days were allowed to pass with the dead person on view in a room in the house, sometimes in their own bed if the house was not grand. Before the advent of jet flight, mourners often had to travel great distances by car, train or more humble means in order to come and pay their last respects. This practice also allowed locals more leisurely space and silence with the dead body, an experience Caleb thinks leads to acceptance and a healthier overall attitude for survivors.
“Now that the death industry is run by professionals,” he says, “that makes the people who have lost a loved one—the mourners, the families—amateurs. I want to return the dead to the people who love them. This means returning ownership of their story, and the experience of their death. This also includes being able to touch, prepare and release the body, rather than having the body ripped away before anyone can gather their thoughts and say goodbye. Usually, unless we’re talking about plague, a corpse is not dangerous to be around. We ostracize the dead from living spaces today. The body does not have to be hurried out of its home. Doing so reflects and causes deep shame.”
He’s an expert embalmer, a skill passed down through his lineage. A tip he offers: “Check for the pacemaker before cremating. They explode at high heat.” While cremation is an increasingly popular option today, he says his preference for himself will be to be buried in the green cemetery he plans to build in Parkesburg.
By his definition, a green burial is a simple affair. The body is washed by loved ones, and blessings and prayers are offered if so desired. A cloth wrap often is used to hold the body snugly but gently in place as it’s laid into a thin, biodegradable box of lightweight wood, pressed sawdust, or even paper. It’s not meant to last. Because the box is lightweight, no cement slab support is needed beneath it. Down it goes, then is covered with dirt and sent on its way with whatever ritual gestures are in keeping with the wishes of the mourners. Then nature takes its course – munch, munch, munch.
“Cremation makes sense for many reasons,” he says, “and I’m glad that this practice saves a lot of people a lot of money. But cremation really does erase any physical presence of the dead person, in a way that visiting a cemetery, or having a home shrine, for instance, do not.”
His other point about cremation is: “It’s very clean. Crematoriums these days pulverize the bones into a fine powder. No lumps or chunks allowed. The form of the body and bone is lost. This may contribute to some of the detachment Americans experience around death.”
Green burial is not yet an option at the Wilde Funeral Home. “We do offer a range of coffins, and we place the least expensive models toward the front door. We encourage people to not get swept up in guilt, not to mention debt, or in other people’s expectations about what is a proper death display.”
Deluxe coffins may offer a lock and key closure and promise to be watertight, for “safety”.
“Safe from what?” I ask. Caleb replies, “Well, yes, it may be a little late in the game. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, and was taught that death was our punishment for Adam’s sin in the Garden. And going even further, that hell is a real place. So once you’re dead, embalmed, wearing makeup applied by somebody like me, and are laid out on satin plush in a bronze coffin, I’m not sure what you need be kept safe from at that point, or how.”
“What about closure?” I ask. He shakes his head. “We have to find our way to some place of comfort with death’s mystery. Why does death come when it does? The word you hear these days is ‘random’. It certainly can seem brutal. We have to make peace with binaries, opposing feelings,” he says. “Closure, as in death being a done deal, all tidy and neat and clean and over with, isn’t a realistic expectation, except maybe for the dead person. I believe that there is such a thing as a good death. But these zombie parties and so on that we see this time of year are usually what I call ‘death-porn’. Candy, cocktails, costumes. Death, like sex, is not all fun and games.”
We both have to chuckle.