Interviewing The Interviewer: James Grainger
Books.Torontoist Editor and Author James Grainger will have a lively chat with CBC Producer Tom Jokinen about his memoir Curtains: Adventures Of An Undertaker In Training (Random House Canada) at this week’s TINARS event. TINARS Co-Artistic Director Chris Reed put a few questions to Grainger as part of a new joint feature of the Torontoist.com & TINARS websites entitled “Interviewing The Interviewer”.
Chris Reed: Apart from reading Tom Jokinen’s book, Curtains, how do you prepare for an onstage encounter with an ‘undertaker-in-training’?
James Grainger: Think about death. The book has certainly made me think not only about death as an idea but the way our culture deals – or doesn’t deal – with death. I’m going to try to bring some of those thoughts with me to the interview. Hopefully I’ll have something intelligent to ask. I also have a few questions of my own that I’ve always wanted to ask an undertaker, but I’m saving those for the show.
CR: Studies show that North Americans are more comfortable talking publicly about their own sexual habits than they are about the general subject of dying. Why do you think death remains a taboo subject ?
JG: I think there’s a couple of reasons. First, a lot of North Americans, at least non-poor North Americans, don’t have much first-hand experience of death. It’s not unusual for people to reach their twenties or thirties having only experienced the death of a few elderly relatives, if any. Those deaths tend to happen in hospitals or institutions, with the younger relatives not present, so the deaths don’t make a very strong impression. North America is one of the only places where you can go through your formative years without having to truly encounter one of the most salient facts of life: that you die one day. Because people are protected from that fact, and because people here often live into their seventies, you can avoid the topic of death for a long time.
The second reason is that a lot of North Americans have rejected religion and therefore have no “metaphysical framework” for thinking about death other than to see it as the end of everything. Kaput. Lights out. The end of consciousness and the body. Given that situation, why would you want to think about death? Religious teachings of all stripes encourage you to think about death. Our secular, materialist culture distracts you from the topic at every turn. I don’t know which is healthier, but they are fundamentally different ways of approaching the subject.
CR: In your view, what constitutes a fitting tribute to a dead loved one?
JG: I think that depends on the loved one in question. I come from an extended Catholic family, so most of the funerals I’ve been to were based on rituals that are centuries old and speak to the life of the deceased in both a personal and spiritual way. Those same rituals, though, can feel somewhat…hollow…when they are given for a deceased person who was no longer, and maybe never had been, a believer.
I’ve also been to a few funerals for friends who died fairly young and who were not religious in any way, nor were their families. Those funeral services tend to happen in the funeral parlour chapel and are overseen by a non-denominational minister who’s never met the deceased and who tries to say something comforting without mentioning God. I can’t say that anybody gets much from those services. What does seem to work is to have some kind of memorial or wake for the deceased so that everyone can come together and remember the person and have a few drinks and cry and talk. That feeling of coming together is very powerful when you’ve lost a loved one.
CR: Did reading Curtains prompt you to rethink your view of the funeral industry or those who work in it?
JG: Reading the book gave me a new respect for the professionals who have to deal with what is for so many people a shocking, almost unspeakable occurrence. To handle that tragedy again and again with tact and professionalism is pretty damn impressive. I couldn’t do it.
CR: I know that you’re something of a horror buff. What’s your favourite screen funeral?
JG: It’s funny, most horror movies are about what happens after the funeral. I do remember a movie I watched when I was a kid that scared the crap out of me. It was a crappy made-for-TV movie starring George Hamilton of all people, but there was seen in a funeral parlour where a man slowly rises from a coffin and looks at the camera. I still relive that scene in my mind every time I’m in a funeral parlour.
Tom Jokinen icw James Grainger
Gladstone Hotel 2nd Floor Gallery, 1214 Queen St West, Toronto
Tues March 23; 7:30pm (Doors 7pm) $5 (Free with Book Purchase)