Katrina Brees interviewed by Lee Matalone for The Rumpus.
If you want to meet with Katrina Brees, you have to walk past a fleet of tricycles adorned with the heads and tails of a hammerhead shark, an alligator, a crawfish, a nutria, a seahorse and a triceratops. Brees is responsible for these animalian trikes: while I’m visiting her in order to discuss Fantastic Casket, the organization she founded to provide funeral consultation to those seeking a more personalized approach to entombment, I discover that Brees also started the Krewe of Kolossos, a New Orleans parading group recognizable for its whimsical, recycled “art bikes.” Brees is one of those artists who perpetually has a hand in multiple projects at once, a supreme multitasker who fixates on alternating and sometimes overlapping endeavors into environmental sustainability and revelry.
In her artist’s studio, which doubles as her living quarters, while we discuss eco-friendly caskets, the unctuousness of the funeral industry, and the “super disgusting” embalming tradition, she cooks a vegan meal of lentils and leafy greens. I feel completely at ease, even as she unrolls a biodegradable bag onto the floor intended for containing a human body.
Throughout our conversation, I am struck by the fact that in the funeral arts, Brees has found a passion. As she would tell you, she never thought she would find herself doing death work. But here she is.
The Biggest Mitzvah
Ten years ago, I saw this documentary called A Family Undertaking. It showed what families were doing around our country without the use of undertakers, and it really struck me. I looked up the different people that were in the documentary and I started to write to them, and a lot of them were death midwives. Most of them were San Francisco-based, 65-year-old baby boomers, and it was very clear to me that there was no one younger that was going to carry on this tradition of knowledge about how you can care for a body without involving an undertaker.
The role of an undertaker is essentially to undertake the rituals and processes to bury someone. What a death midwife does is empower families through providing choices. They’re not saying go one way or another—if you want to use an undertaker, use them—but let’s be pro-choice so people can access what feels correct to them spiritually, for their family, and for their finances.
I started talking to all these women and learning, “What do you do with a dead body?” and “Is this legal?” One thing I realized is that in the Jewish tradition, there’s a Chevra, and the Chevra is the group that takes care of the bodies, so I was like, “I’m Jewish; let’s see if this group will have me.” I find my local Chevra chapter, and they were like, “Most of our deaths happen at night, and we have to do the bodies really early. Typically, we do the bodies at five in the morning at a funeral home in Metairie. We can call you anytime, so be prepared.”
So for a whole year I was not going out getting drunk because they might call at 5 a.m. with this body, and I have to have my head together and be ready to go! A year passes, and they never call me, even though I have this in my head all the time. Then I realized, in their tradition, it is such an honor and the biggest mitzvah to be able to care for the body. It was almost like they were mitzvah whores—they weren’t going to share this mitzvah with me.
The Beautiful Blonde Funeral Director
My cousin was dying of cancer, and I was like you know, I’m going to try this. I’m going to have this experience of caring for her because that’s what my cousin needs right now, and when that experience is over, I want to have the experience with her of undertaking whatever her family needs to sign off on. What I realized going through that process is that the medicine for the depression that we feel from death and loss is inside the rituals of the preparation.
After she died, I went and did the body washing for her. I go to the funeral home, and they put me in a room with her body and this metal corpse sink, and this beautiful blonde walks in—and I think, “Oh she must be the secretary,” and she’s like, “No. I’m the funeral director; I have to supervise while you’re here.”
I was like, wow, this woman is so hot! “Why are you a funeral director?”
She says, “When I was eighteen, my mom died of cancer. For some reason, I had this calling inside me that I wanted to prepare the body and I didn’t want somebody else to do it.”
I think that a lot of it is about not wanting someone else to do it—not wanting some random stranger, some Addams Family necrophiliac, or whatever you fear that person’s going to be. She said that when she decided to wash her mom’s body, the experience was so powerful that she wanted to do that everyday for the rest of her life. I’m really thankful that I had that conversation with her.
So I did the body washing for my cousin. It’s not like you put them across the room and shoot a hose at them. It’s very intimate. You actually have to hug this person and lean them on your body and use your strength to hold them while you’re washing them. You have a dead person that’s on your chest, with their head on your shoulder—almost how you would wash them while they were still alive. When they first come out of the refrigerator, they are very, very cold and very stiff, and then almost as they’re being stretched out a little bit—it almost feels like you’re putting life back into them. It’s like doing acid with God. Like, holy fucking shit, this is the end of it all. The most amazing trust that you’ve ever experienced in your life is being given to you. You have the shell of this person, and they have no power anymore. There’s also a feeling that this is like the trash after the party. This is just the final clean-up of everything that was this life and everything this body did. You don’t feel scared of the body anymore. You have so much fear going into it, and after a little while, all that fear is gone. I’m feeling very euphoric. I’m feeling very inspired.
“I’m Not a Carpenter”
When I first presented it to [my cousin’s] family, about building the casket, people didn’t really trust me because I’m the hippie artist in the family and I’m not a carpenter. They were really nervous that I wouldn’t get it done on time. Everyone was really scared the handles would pop out, like somehow we were going to build this casket and have it at the funeral and it would dump out the bottom and everyone’s going to blame me and I would lose my reputation for eternity.
We were building it the last month of her life. We built it in her garage, and she never saw it—she never wanted to see it—but she knew what was happening in there. People would come visit to say their goodbyes to her as she was dying, and they would stop by the garage and see what we were making. She was really popular, so there were a lot of people coming. People would walk into the garage, they’d see the casket, and start bawling about it, not feeling comfortable with it at all. Then all of a sudden they would see these amazing photos we had put inside the casket of all these fabulous moments. She was really over the top, almost like if Lady Gaga was sixty-five years old. That was the type of woman she was, and that was part of why it seemed so important to do something different for her and not put her in some kind of traditional box. Not Your Grandmother’s Casket, you know? We lined the inside walls with a hundred, two hundred photos of all the best moments of her life. So as these people were looking through their tears into it, you’d see them connect with something and all of a sudden they would be happy and smiling and feeling like they wanted to tell a story about that day, or talking about this other photo from this special time that should be in there.
We had a printer set up inside the casket, so people could go on Facebook, find the photo, text me the photo, and print the photo right then, and then they could decoupage with Mod Podge inside there. It really was this amazing art therapy, and I didn’t really believe art therapy was a thing—I just thought it was some bullshit degree you could get, as if you could heal people with art. But at this level, it really is therapeutic, and people are having a totally different experience because we’re bonding as a family. Also, she was still alive, so you could still go talk to her about that story. You could be reminded of it and go back to her and say, “Remember that one time, we were at that party and Snoop Dogg was there…” It almost brought more life to her than death.
For the casket upholstery, I found a bolt of fabric that she had re-done her patio furniture with, so I was like, let’s do it an exact replica of her patio furniture. When her husband saw the casket, he was like, “Oh, you can’t put the patio cushions in there! I need those.” We put her Neiman Marcus card in there. We put her passport in there. We put little trinkets that people wanted in there. On the outside—she was a sailor; she was really into travelling and going to beaches—so we found her sand and seashell collection from all over the world and affixed sand all over the outside of the casket and put seashells inside. We got some teak, which was the wood her boat was made out of, and lined it with teak.
One of my goals was for it to be so not like a casket that I would feel comfortable taking a nap in it, and it really was. This is like a jewelry box for someone’s life. This expresses everything about life and not about death. It symbolizes that this person is really, really special to us, like more special than the person in the basic casket over there! This did her right.
The Cost of Death
It made me realize that other people who might feel a calling to do this in their own family should know about this. The financial impact of funerals was a big factor in why I wanted to do this. Caskets are really expensive. There’s no reason for them to be so expensive. They’re only expensive because salesmen and funeral directors can manipulate you, offer you credit, and push you into these caskets. You’re already dead; there’s nothing that casket’s going to do to benefit you. You don’t necessarily want to be in an airtight one because you’re just going to liquefy and explode.
It made me think a lot about all of these families being impacted by the cost of caskets. Caskets can cost up to $18,000, and to spend, let’s say, $10,000 on a box that’s going in the ground when most people are living in debt already in our country—this is a huge expense for no reason. There’s way better things families could be spending money on. It made me want to help families do this on their own for less money. The one we built, we spent $300 on, and probably $100 of that was just the little bits of teak wood, which were super-expensive.
“The Moment to Own It”
As far as the market right now, this is the moment to own it on caskets because we have the baby boomer generation coming up, and they’re doubling the number of deaths that are happening. We’re going from a country that had 2 million deaths per year to 4 million deaths per year. When you go to look at caskets, it’s almost like you’re looking at a bunch of 1979 model cars. They’re just so out of date. The colors are like pale blue, and the options are satin or velvet, and it’s like, why satin or velvet? How about anything you want? These are the hippies. The people that are really going to be making the choices for those people are their children, and their children do not want to go into a mortuary. They are not accustomed to having sales consultations. They’re a generation used to information coming from your phone. I think that we have a more informed consumer base that’s doubling in size.
A lot of people are like, but oh, everyone’s into cremation. And that is true; there is a rise in cremation, and part of that is because traditional Christianity has now accepted cremation, but the increased number of deaths is increasing casket sales. Right now, we’re at about 50/50 on cremation vs. burial, but because we’re doubling the number of deaths we have, that’s not going to affect the casket market.
What Pinterest Has to Do With It
I see Fantastic Casket as a marketplace for alternatives. I think in the future, if we all envision having to do the funeral planning for at least one of our parents, then that experience is going to be us sitting in a hospital room, sitting on planes and trains, trying to get to this person, a lot of us just sitting around with our phones, and if you were to type in “how to do the funeral planning,” you’re not going to get any resources that will help you. The way I envision putting my energies into this project is creating casket designs that are affordable, and empowering people to create them, and empowering the low-income world. This isn’t just about America; this is about the whole world being pushed into caskets. We can create these designs and knowledge and make the whole thing Pinteresting, like have Pin boards about casket concepts and involve all these crafters and scrapbookers that are filling these platforms, and get them interested in creating concepts about death and funeral arts.
Our generation would much rather book a funeral on a platform that mimics, let’s say Expedia or TripAdvisor, than make an appointment at a funeral home, go in, see some weirdos, sit there, get hustled, get offered credit, feel shame because you’re choosing something cheap. Our generation is more like, “Here’s a picture of what the funeral home looks like. Here’s some reviews. Here’s the price.”
Funeral homes have been very protected for a long time, and consumer rights groups are now getting on them. One of the things that just changed is now, in certain states, funeral homes are required to give price quotes over the phone. Until recently, they were not. So that meant you had to go in there, and how many of those are you really going to go visit? You’re going to go to one. You’re exhausted. Your mom just died. So I think by creating this marketplace, platform, not only are we going to increase the number of alternatives that can be presented to the public worldwide, we’re also going to protect the consumer experience and shelter the grieving from having to deal with some strangers at a funeral home. I don’t care what the funeral director’s name is. If I’m booking a trip on Expedia, I don’t care what the hotel manager’s name is. We’re a different generation. I don’t care that this guy’s brother went to my church. That’s not how we roll nowadays.
“Lincoln Looks So Great!”
In the same way that people want home births because the experience of being in a hospital is undesirable, people want home funerals. At a funeral home you have to pay for every hour of visitation, you have to go at those hours, you have to have that experience supervised in an outside environment. Or you can have visitation at their bedside, in their home, run the way your family is comfortable with, saying your goodbyes the way you want to—that’s a desirable experience for a lot of people. And that’s actually the more traditional experience of death.
Our current concept of funeral products and services was really identified in the 1860s. When Lincoln died, that was really the first time that embalming became the talk of our nation, because they embalmed Lincoln and put him on a train and brought him all over so everybody could say their goodbyes. It was a big advertisement for the embalming industry. Everyone was like “Wow! Lincoln looks so great!” and then the embalming industry just exploded, and people started believing that in order to be buried you had to be embalmed.
Embalming is a super-disgusting experience. It’s so disgusting that there’s a reason it’s not even in horror movies because it would trouble us so badly. When they embalm someone, they have a bayonet, essentially, that they use to puncture every single thing in your body that could have liquids inside of it. So you’re talking about going inside Grandma and stabbing her hundreds of times and then filling the holes with the most toxic chemicals. I can’t imagine any religion in the world saying, “You should meet God filled with formaldehyde if you want to go to heaven!” They do very twisted things like putting a cork in your asshole and having your nipples sewn together so your tits look perky in your casket and having your eyes glued shut and having your mouth glued shut and having all these things happen that we don’t even think about, but that’s what people are buying for their relatives because they think this is a mandatory thing, and it’s not. It’s expensive and it’s gross. It increases our fear of death. To hear that when we die, we’re going to get corks in our assholes, it’s like, “Oh my god, I don’t want to die!” You don’t need to have that happen.