If you’ve had a chance to look at my introduction to Chasing Shadows, you’ll know that a big theme in this novel is the personification of death in different cultures. I’ve mentioned before that this idea came to me while I was volunteering at an undertaker’s parlour, learning about embalming, but I wanted to give you the full story.
I took an interest in embalming for two reasons; first, because it would make a great talking point at dinner parties, and second, because we apparently have a shortage of them in the UK and jobless me was happy to take advantage of that. I started by touring a few different parlours, talking to the staff and finding out more about the job, which was quite an experience in itself. I live close to a military airport, so you can imagine that there were some very unusual stories floating around. But my interest in the cultural aspects surrounding death came about when I sat down for a cup of tea with an elderly undertaker in my own little village.
He had told me that a couple of months previous, a group of Roma travellers had come through the village and stayed for a week or two. While they were here, sadly, one of their members passed away and they had come to this undertaker to make funeral arrangements. But their requests were quite unlike anything he had dealt with before. For a start, they wanted to hire ten-or-so limousines, several horse drawn carriages and a marching band for the funeral procession. That was unusual, but not impossible to arrange. Next, they came to the embalmer with some unique requests, such as plugging the deceased’s nose to stop evil spirits escaping. Again, that was doable.
But the tough part came when they revealed that they intended to display the deceased in front of their home for three days before the funeral, in keeping with tradition. That one made the embalmer turn pale, the undertaker told me. It’s hard enough keeping a body fresh in the morgue freezer, but outside, in the damp spring weather? Anyway, they did what they could, making sure not a single capillary was left untouched by the formaldehyde and then handed the deceased back over to his family. He held up pretty well, apparently. But after the three days were up, the undertaker and his staff were relieved to finally have the funeral and be done with it.
This story, while a little grisly, was totally fascinating to me. So much trouble and expense over a funeral was completely unheard of in my own family and I was eager to find out more. Specifically, what purpose could motivate people to go through all of this? It wasn’t long before I had a small stack of books on the subject and I was learning more and more every day. And what interested me even more than the rituals and ceremonies surrounding death was the motivation for holding them – the spirits, deities and mythical beings that were being appeased by all of it.
That’s when I refined my interest to the personification of death. The fact that people all over the world were going to such extents to please these beings made them all the more interesting and real and I was desperate to share everything I’d learned with others in a way that would captivate them like it had me. That was when the theme of my novel was born.
As for the embalming, I had to give it up for a more stable office job – partly because there was no way I could afford the £6,000 it costs to get qualified. But I still feel a little sad about having to leave it behind. My present job is far less interesting to talk about at social events.