“Over Our Dead Bodies: Undertakers Lift the Lid” by Kenneth McKenzie and Todd Harra
c.2014, Citadel Press
$15.95 / $17.95 Canada
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
It comes after the walking-into-the-sunset shot in old movies, usually in florid script. You see it in books for children, more than for adults. It’s at the tail of short stories, tongue-in-cheek advertisements, sarcastic social media postings… and life.
And then what? What happens to your mortal remains when that’s all that remains? Take a peek at “Over Our Dead Bodies” by Kenneth McKenzie and Todd Harra, and you’ll get a general idea.
In your job, you basically know what to expect from day to day. Not so, if you’re an undertaker. When you care for the dead and their families, anything can happen – and McKenzie and Harra prove that well.
But first – a little history.
Take the label “undertaker,” for example. It initially had to do with the undertaking of proper burial but some 130 years ago, the National Funeral Directors Association officially changed the title to “funeral director.”
Back then, funeral directors and cabinet makers went hand-in-hand; someone had to make the coffins, so why not someone with woodworking skills? The business was then passed down through the family, with many an undertaker getting his (or her) start as a child, sweeping the parking lot, pulling weeds, or helping out inside.
But getting back to the main point: “no day is the same” for a funeral director. You can’t ever prepare yourself for a “Goat” to appear on someone’s last wishes. You can’t fail to be impressed at the timing of a husband and wife who die within hours of one another. You can’t remain unfazed by any coincidence, really, and you’ll never get over the death of your own mother, no matter how many mothers you’ve buried.
Still, funerals aren’t “doom and gloom and death and dying and tears and crying every day, all day.” Funny things happen – like a hearse caught in a snowstorm and a funeral rescued by a beat-up pickup. Like a jazz funeral that ended with a second chorus. Like superstitions, accidental love-matches, funeral crashers, and life stories that start with a piece of furniture and go full circle.
And speaking of life, the authors say, enjoy yours to the fullest “because you too will one day be pushing daisies.”
No pun intended, but my first impression of “Over Our Dead Bodies” was that it was a little stiff.
There’s quite a bit off-topic in the first few pages here – extraneous info that felt like a commercial – and because of that, it seems to take awhile for authors Kenneth McKenzie and Todd Harra to get to the body of their book. Once they do, however, we’re treated to the kinds of tales we’d normally beg to hear when we’d meet an undertaker at a cocktail party, as well as personal stories and a rambling (and quite fascinating) social history of death and funerals.
But fear not: this isn’t macabre stuff; it’s funny and poignant and, as you dig in, it’s very, very addicting. Once you’ve started “Over our Dead Bodies,” in fact, you’ll like it to The End.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.