This summer, my friend Rachel Bailey was working as a waitress in Athens, Ga., doing social media for some restaurants, writing when she could, but not as much as she wanted—just scraping by in a town where it’s easy, sometimes even fun, to just scrape by. But she wasn’t having fun. She’d been out of college a few years and had imagined something more for her 20s. She was feeling anxious, stagnant and just generally crappy about life. And then she hit her head in a piggybacking accident and almost died. And then things got better.
When it comes to grief, what’s meaningful and what’s creepy is often a matter of largely unpredictable personal preference. I recently came across a website selling 12-inch poseable action figures that are customizable to resemble a dead loved one, whose ashes you can also get sealed inside. After an initial reaction that was something along the lines of “oh HELL no” and a swift x-ing out of the browser window, a minute later I found myself back on the page, scrolling through all of the options: “Trendy Male,” “Casual Female,” “Male Grey Suit,” “Nice Nurse,” “Karate Male/Female.”
It was a bad week on the heels of a bad month. If you are reading this in real time I hardly have to tell you about it, but in case you aren’t: Gaza, Ukraine, Ebola, Michael Brown, Robin Williams, Ferguson, Ferguson, Ferguson—what am I missing? Probably a lot. Anyway, there was all of this, and then suddenly the lamp situation in my dining room became untenable.
Cecily Hintzen is in her 50s, an age where many start casting longing glances at the idea of retirement. But earlier this year she left the job she’d held for a decade, at a hospital pathology lab, and started her own business, Pathfinders Memorial Planning. Her new gig is twofold: She guides grieving families in organizing loved ones’ memorial services (doing as much as full-on event planning, or as little as producing remembrance slideshows) and she works with not-dead-yet people to make their own end-of-life wishes known before it’s too late.
Colin Dickey is a writer and teacher whose work has taken a probing long-view of death and dying—in particular, what happens to the body post-mortem. His 2006 book, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, explored the penchant of certain 18th and 19th century folks for exhuming and stealing body parts of famous men (Haydn! Beethoven!) and, more broadly, the shadow economy of grave-robbing that stemmed from clashing priorities of religion and science. Death has remained a focus of Dickey’s work; I especially like what he’s written about hauntedness—of hotels, of foreclosed houses.
It’s hard to talk about money. It’s also hard to talk about death. And it’s really hard to talk about all the ways money and death seem to tangle themselves together. But since The Billfold was already down with one of these notoriously gnarly subjects, I figured the other might not be such a hard sell.
A few years ago, the first Christmas we lived together, my husband and I went to Target and bought a little fake tree, a pre-lit three-footer, the largest our apartment could handle. This was no big thing for Joe, whose family had always happily employed a fake tree.
The couch was ugly and old and free. Did I want it? Of course I wanted it. I met Mom at the church that afternoon, and we hauled the thing out of the parish hall, green and squat like a corpse excised from a condemned house.
When I lost my job I went out to California and I suppose there are a few reasons for that. One is that this is just what we do, we Americans, when we find ourselves without work: We go West to where things might be (have to be, please God let them be) better.