I am a contrarian. Growing up, however, the private schools taught me to “stay inside the lines.” (To be fair to them, if you’re going to stay in a box, the Upper East Side is a very pretty one to choose!) I wasn’t the weird kid in school; I put on a brilliant act, looked the part and fooled most around me. Deep down, however, I just saw the world differently. I failed in my brief fashion career because I couldn’t fathom making a life out of fabric; it was too ironic for me to have a career literally covering-up people. After disappointing others, I found my passion- the funeral industry.
I traded gowns for black suits, limos for hearses, and centerpiece arrangements for casket sprays- my “weird” won and I’m a funeral director. My memoir Good Mourning focuses this transformation, as I push others to follow their passions. After a decade working in this industry, I realized yet again, I was brainwashed into believing societal norms. While, my career is bizarre enough to jolt others at cocktail parties, by working in the American funeral home, I am forced to follow both laws, and beliefs that have corrupted our unchallenging minds.
Americans fear death and dying; rather than face the unknown, they back away and appreciate when the funeral directors take their hands and tell them, “Don’t worry, we will handle everything.” The client rarely asks, “what is happening? Why are we embalming? What in fact is embalming?” Most will simply follow the steps that the funeral directors dictate. Americans are lemmings when it comes to funerals. In the same way many spend on the hot clutch Vogue is pushing, they blindly purchase the beautifully displayed overpriced caskets .
While getting my MBA in London, I was able to get first-hand insight as to how the rest of the world views death- they are not afraid. My passion became studying funerals around the world; in many countries, death is simply a part of life and celebrated as such. I yearned to simply travel the world and see these celebrations first hand. Often people would say, “oh you want to be the Anthony Bourdain of death.” While I typically cringe at people’s innate need to find a comparison, this one didn’t bother me. I was impressed by Bourdain’s ability to ease spectators into the unknown; he coaxed society into appreciating those who, like me, were passionate about the the bizarre. I would respond optimistically, “while if he can make offal appealing, surely I can convince others to appreciate a good party!” Most often, I was told, “no, food and death are very different.”
Well, it turns out that in one of the last episodes Bourdain filmed before his suicide, he participated in a Bhutanese Death Ritual. This is the foreign ritual that I most often speak about as it is truly the most distinct from us. The most brief description is: relatives gather as the body of the deceased is cut up and then carried to the top of a mountain and fed to the vultures. While the idea is gruesome to many, the Vijrayana Buddhists believe that once the person dies, the soul leaves the body. Thus, “donating” this empty vessel to the vultures is considered the ultimate self-sacrifice as it spares the life of small animals that the vultures would otherwise hunt for food.
Few Westerners are able to see the beauty in this. Bourdain, however, after hearing a local tell him that the message is to remember “time and time again not to take things too seriously…. This is, in fact all an illusion” is completely accepting. He responds, “Life is but a dream.” In his typical way, he closes the scene with a final deep thought, “It is considered enlightening and therapeutic to think about death a few minutes each day.”
Bourdain’s death is tragic. Rather than simply mourn a life lost, I choose to celebrate a person who pushed us to be passionate and not fear the unknown but dive into it. I vow to continue to pursue my obsession and I hope to convince others that “This is all an illusion.” Thank you, Anthony Bourdain, RIP.