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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
Books In Conversation

ERICA BUIST with J.C. Hallman

“I think grief is the small print of love, and love definitely did help us survive as a species. ”

Erica Buist
This Party’s Dead
(Unbound Books, 2021)

It’s rare, I would say, to read a book that is a pitch perfect projection of the personality of its author. There is usually a little mediation, a smoothing out of the edges, a tendency to perfect the self-portrait. Not so with Erica Buist’s This Party’s Dead, which can perhaps be described as a rollicking, globe-trotting death adventure, albeit not of the victim tourism sort. Buist’s tour of death festivals—venturing from Madagascar to New Orleans to Indonesia—is fun and even cheerful, purposefully so, and arrives at a time when the whole world is running on a cheer deficit.

I met Buist at the Vermont Studio Center, where our periods of residency overlapped. We chatted quite a bit about the books we were both, at that point, just starting to write. Our email exchange about This Party’s Dead is an extension in spirit of those formative conversations.

J.C. Hallman (Rail): Let’s start with the elephant in the room. It’s notable that you’re coming out with an upbeat, rollicking travel narrative about death just as the world is experiencing a whole lot more death. How do the lessons of This Party’s Dead inform or explain what we’ve been seeing since the COVID pandemic hit, particularly in terms of the distinction between social and physical death that is described by one of the experts you consult?

Erica Buist: Much of This Party’s Dead deals with how here in the West, we cope with death anxiety with good old-fashioned denial, and that comes in many forms—mainly, refusing to think or talk about it unless absolutely necessary. But it’s certainly been on display in light of COVID. For example, someone wishing to deny death during a deadly pandemic might refuse to wear a mask, pretending it’s an issue of personal freedom (even though presumably they wouldn’t think the same of whether or not the restaurant chef making their sandwich washes his hands), rather than face the difficult truth that something deadly may be passing between us. That’s absolutely born of a culture that rewards not mentioning, discussing or even considering one’s own death. Or they might declare the pandemic a hoax, or that it was developed in a lab by a supervillain, or as a way to spy on us via microchips in a vaccine. It’s comforting to believe that someone, even if it is a supervillain, knows what they’re doing. Because the truth—that it’s all just chaos, that small events can have huge consequences, that we’re all as perishable as the spider we just squished—is much more frightening.

The fact is we die two deaths: a social death and a physical death. In communities like that in Tana Toraja, where they take the corpses out of the tombs for a party once a year, people are still part of the community long after they die. Here in the West, people who are dying are often deserted by friends and family who “don’t know what to say” or “want to remember them as they were.” They die their social deaths before their bodies give out. It’s a cruel reality of our inability to deal with mortality. We’re really seeing that with COVID—those who oppose lockdowns often cite the low numbers of young people or those without pre-existing conditions who have died, as if the deaths of the old and sick matter less than our right to go to the movies. 

Rail: The book has a kind of epigram at the start: “Love is not a reward, Death is not a punishment.” Where does this come from? And how do you see this being a kind of inaugural anthem for the book?

Buist: It came from my brain! I sat down to write a dedication and realised that’s who the book is for. Anyone who’s been taught that death is a punishment, and that love is a reward. I’d noticed a lot of people talking about death as a thing a person “didn’t deserve,” and thought about what a bizarrely damaging narrative that is, to take something that will happen to 100% of people, good or bad, and then frame it as a punishment. In some states the idea has been internalised so much, death as punishment is enshrined in law—it’s more costly than life imprisonment, it’s a bizarre message (don’t kill, or we’ll kill you), and it isn’t even a deterrent. The only upside is satisfying this weird maxim, that it’s a right and just punishment for people who violate the law, and our sense of safety. The flip side is that love is seen as a reward, which is similarly nonsensical. If I tried to convince the mother of a murderer that her son didn’t deserve her love, she’d shrug, “What do you want me to do about it, bud?” It’s a strange and cruel thing we’ve done to ourselves, to link these forces to morality when they have nothing to do with one another. A big theme in the book is trying to unlearn this lesson that we were first taught as children, in every movie and every story: that death is a punishment for the bad guys. It’s setting us up for anxiety and failure. 

Rail: The project as a whole is a manifestation of grief—your grief. The grief-inspired investigation that many readers will likely be familiar with is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. How does This Party’s Dead stand as a complement or reply to Didion?

Buist: I love Didion, but I very deliberately left The Year of Magical Thinking off my reading list for This Party’s Dead. Didion was grieving her husband, whereas the grief I was suffering was for my partner’s father, and therefore I was in a strange no-man’s land of being bereaved without feeling I had any right to be. We don’t think much about it but there is a grief hierarchy, and “daughter-in-law-to-be” doesn’t feature on it. No one thinks you’re cut up about the death of an in-law-to-be (“Oh… did you actually know him that well?” etc). So rather than dive into the world of someone who by any societal measure is entitled to every shred of her pain, I wanted to stay in that strange place of not feeling entitled to mine so I could explore it, this uncomfortable and strangely compassionless space we’ve built. 

Rail: You’re an avowed atheist, but the book is filled with the religious sentiments of others. You’re seeking some kind of solution to mortal terror, they seem to have it. What gives?

Buist: Well, exactly. Two things about atheism it’s important to know: one is that it’s much, much more common here in western Europe than in the US. The other is that it isn’t, at least for me, a position that’s chosen. I think people assume it is because it’s always marketed as being aggressively rational, but it isn’t. The only rational position is agnosticism, “I don’t know and neither do you,” and if someone asked what I thought, that’s what I’d say. But when someone asks what you believe, you have to reach into your chest and pull out what’s there, and what’s in my chest is that we’re alone, all this is chaos, we’re primates in pants. So I was seeking a solution to mortal terror precisely because I’m an atheist. I have nothing comforting to reach for and I’m not the sort of person who can just decide to believe something just because it’s comforting.

But what’s fascinating about global attitudes to death is how the same messages get repeated, centuries and worlds apart. The one “perk” every religion has is “you don’t have to die”—you’ll go to heaven, be reincarnated, whatever. Atheists don’t have that perk. But religious people don’t have the solution to mortal terror; they have a coping strategy. The main thing I found out is that the old lie that “other cultures don’t fear death as much as us” really is ridiculous, mystical-magical-foreigner nonsense. We’re all human, which means we’re all in the unfortunate position of knowing death is coming, so the terror lives inside us all—the promise of eternal bliss doesn’t stop the pious wearing seatbelts. But I think we atheists have it sitting just a little bit closer to us on the bus, breathing on us. We have to indulge a little more in the other ways of keeping it at bay—such as symbolic immortality (which I’ll cop to—what else is the act of writing a book?). 

Rail: Well, if the West isn’t all that hot on death, what do you advise now that we have a whole lot more of it?

Buist: Oh, bloody hell, that’s a big ask. Alright. Sit down, everyone, I’ll talk you through this hellish daily death reminder!

It may sound counterproductive, but it starts with acceptance—of mortality itself, not a preventable virus. Because the very point of being “death positive” is that by accepting the fact of your mortality, you have less generalised anxiety and hopefully much more control over how it happens. You’ll have a will, and your family will know your wishes—maybe you’ll even have money put aside for your funeral, or a message or activity, or even a pizza order for the attendees.

With regards to the pandemic, if you’re mindful of the fact of your mortality, it means you won’t stick your head in the sand, pretend it’s not happening, refuse to wear a mask and put yourself and others at risk. You’ll take precautions and know that, all being well, you’ll get to die of old age—specifically, you’ll get to die of one of the three things we tend to die of in the West: cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Those are the normal ways of dying. No one’s excited for the day, but it’s an ordinary thing. That’s my advice. Accept, prepare, and don’t let the terror make you a dumdum. 

Rail: As the story proceeds, you’re constantly concluding that either your preconceptions, and eventually your conceptions, are either wrong or premature. Was this inevitable in writing a book about death?

Buist: I think it was inevitable in writing a book that is a) set largely in places other than the culture I was raised in and b) on any topic on which you’d been taught to be the opposite of curious. The word “ghoulish” comes to mind when talking and writing about death, which is really just the pejorative form of curiosity, being curious about topics like death, with the “you sicko” implied. I’m sure that’s what people thought when I told them I’d gone to Madagascar and got hit in the head by a corpse on the shoulders of its dancing descendants. This book ventures twofold into areas where my preconceptions were likely to be wrong, because I was delving into a taboo subject, and in various foreign (to me) societies. I was constantly alert for my own cultural lens colouring what I was seeing and hearing. And my solution was just to ask questions constantly. Stupid ones, too, ones I thought I knew the answer to—and usually, the answers surprised me. 

Rail: Are we too cheerful, we Westerners? Would a bit of prophylactic gloom do us some good? I’m thinking of your friend Steph, who appears in your New Orleans chapter.

Buist: Ha! Even the fact that you used the term “gloom” in place of “talking and thinking about death” speak volumes about the culture we grew up in! Those things are inextricable where we’re from—but that’s exactly the point: the people I spoke to were cheerful because they think about death and the dead, and we’re anxious and terrified underneath the cheer precisely because we don’t. And yes, Steph’s anxiety is like mine was, in that it’s largely based in concerns about getting sick or dying, and I think that is exacerbated when death—our own death, anyway—is a mystifying thing, kept on the margins of consciousness, where it can shoot little terror arrows at us, unchecked. When you have an annual festival for the dead, it’s time carved out every year not only to think about the loved ones who’ve died, but to consider mortality as a whole. What other huge, frightening thing do we have to deal with where the agreed-upon course of action is to ignore it until we absolutely cannot ignore it anymore, which is when we’re bereaved or dying ourselves—i.e., at our highest moment of trauma? Why would we do that? That’s not a product of being cheerful. It’s a product of being fearful.

Rail: You used to do stand-up, and you quote George Carlin in the book. What kinds of parallels do you see between stand-up and writing? And how would you say that humor and grief are connected?

Buist: The only difference between writing and stand-up is that now I don’t have to watch the audience react in real time. And I don’t have to put my shoes on for them to receive what I’ve done; I can be at home in pyjamas. Humour and grief are incredibly connected, at least in Britain where it’s generally acknowledged that we have a somewhat wicked sense of humour. I think the key is tension and the breaking of it. Because death is a taboo, tension builds around grief quickly and easily, so the breaking of it is funny. 

Rail: What is meant by funny in the book. There’s a bunch of times when people describe things as funny when at the same time … they’re not. What does funny actually mean? Or is thinking of it that way the problem?

Buist: I think you’re referring to the moment where the undertakers get trapped in the room with an eight-day-old corpse? We are a bit horrible in Britain, and things are often funny precisely because we know they shouldn’t be. When the handle came off the door and the police came downstairs to respectfully ask if they might break it down to release the poor undertakers, it was just a tapestry of Things We Shouldn’t Laugh At. We’ve got a dead body, which demands quiet, reverence and respect. We’ve got the misfortune of others. We’ve got the taboo of what happens to a dead body after death, which is by almost any measure pretty distressing and disgusting, which further complicates the need to be respectful because you have to pretend you don’t want to hold your nose … it’s a lot. So in that moment, when the laughter broke, it really broke. Which was funny in itself because we looked like terrible, insensitive assholes even though we were simultaneously torn up inside. Gosh, I’d never thought about this in such detail before. Being English is complicated.

Rail: You note that death festivals don’t necessarily put people at any more peace than Western society. It made me wonder what you think grief is for exactly, from a Darwinian perspective. How does grief confer any kind of advantage, biologically or sociologically? It would seem to be easier to argue that it’s just emotional baggage, more likely to weigh you down.

Buist: I think even the notion that we evolved everything we have for a purpose is a romantic way of looking at evolution—the truth is a species survives only as long as nothing stops an animal from getting its reproduction in before it dies. That’s all evolution is. So while something like grief arguably does weigh us down, it hasn’t been enough to impede us from reproducing before we croak. But I think grief is the small print of love, and love definitely did help us survive as a species. Without love, men wouldn’t have stuck around to protect the woman and child from predators after her body had been blown apart in childbirth, for example. So I don’t think grief confers any evolutionary advantage, but love does. And—here comes my British realism again—everything has a down side. 

Rail: When you interview Zoltan Istvan the Transhumanist, it becomes a question of privilege—fear of death is a by-product of civilization. Civilization is the opposite of the wilderness, and wilderness is death. Are we grimly reaping what we’ve sowed?

Buist: I don’t think fear is a by-product of civilisation, I think it’s the opposite: we built a civilization so we could feel safer from the constantly-looming threat of death. Dwellings, food supplies that don’t rely on a fight to the death, medicine, laws—we did these things to combat our fear of mortality, but the fear was only ever diminished, never actually stamped out. So we find new ways. We invent better medicine, stricter laws, harsher punishments for those who threaten our peace from the anxiety around death. Zoltan’s argument is that we should be treating death itself as a disease, and fighting it as we do any other illness. That’s a conclusion you can only arrive at when all your basic needs are being met; you have food, water, shelter, safety, health, social security—and the only niggling problem that’s left is that this sweet deal has an expiry date. No one who’s at major risk of being shot by police, strangled by an abusive spouse, beaten to death by transphobes or hunted by cartels is losing sleep over the idea that they might not live to be 800 years old (that’s how old one transhumanist told me he’d like to live to, minimum), they’re worried about getting a few more weeks or months or years. I don’t mean to devalue the transhumanists’ mortal terror, we all have it, but in a time where a lot of people don’t have the privilege of dying of old age, I must say I feel their timing is off. 

Rail: You’re very critical of the death museum in New Orleans, and liken it to googling death and scrolling through the image search results. This seems to me to reveal that death is only the ostensible subject matter of This Party’s Dead. But if death is not the true subject, what is?

Buist: Yes, I hated the Museum of Death with some energy. But I think it was a good thing for me to see, to land myself in the bog of how many people deal with their fear of death: by pure sensationalism. And no, death is not the true subject matter of the book—I think a lot of people will assume this is Eat, Pray, Love with corpses, and about how I got past my grief and fear of death. In reality, I was investigating death anxiety and mortal terror as a human condition, how people from different cultures live with the knowledge that death is coming. It turns out, a lot of them do it in the most joyful way imaginable: by throwing a party.  

Rail: The character Bloody Mary—in New Orleans, of course—says, “Dance with death, and it’ll teach you the right steps.” What does she mean?

Buist: Bloody Mary is a voodoo priestess, and I arrived at her Haunted Museum, all decorated in swathes of spooky fabrics and dotted with creepy dolls, thinking she represented an Americanized, almost Disneyland version of death acceptance. Ghosts, seances—all the things I’d been taught were nonsense. But she went on to talk about symbolic immortality so clearly and lovingly, and then she said that to me. She told me to dance with death, and that it would show me the right steps. What she means is exactly the message I’d been hearing all over the world: accept your mortality as a reality, and instead of trying to avoid it, engage with it. Engage with the reality of death, continue your relationship with those who have died, even just symbolically—say hi, pour them a drink, maybe even buy them a little birthday present—and you’ll find that much of the terror shrinks away. It’s like shining a light onto the monster in the darkness, and realising it’s just a cat.

Contributor

J.C. Hallman

J.C. Hallman’s most recent book is B & ME: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a work of “creative criticism.” He sort of lives in New York City.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues