Death and mourning may seem like an odd and depressing theme for a short story collection, but in a way, it makes sense. The way people let go of their loved – and not so loved – ones has been the subject of many books and stories. So, though the title of Alix Strauss’s The Joy of Funerals may raise a few eyebrows, a book like hers is actually long overdue.
The Joy of Funerals contains several stories, each about a women coping with death or loss in some way. Leslie dulls the pain of her husband’s death from a sudden auto accident by sleeping with strangers in the cemetery. Gail is a self-destructive thrill seeker nursing the wounds of her father’s shocking death. Beth gives her mother a grand send-off by hiring the best post-mortem makeup artist she can find. Karen hunts her lover’s killer, and on the list goes. All of the stories are tied up in a novella (actually the last, and longest story in the book) called “The Joy of Funerals,” which tells the story of Nina, a lonely, sad woman who attends the funerals of characters mentioned in the other stories.
Obviously, each of the women in the book is trying to fulfill a need, with varying degrees of success. The stories are often sad, but Strauss doesn’t fall into the trap of making the book maudlin and depressing. The women are lonely, but, in many cases, they find small shreds of hope that could help them through their pain.
This is particularly true in the story about the makeup artist, “Addressing the Dead.” In it, Beth is torn apart by the death of her mother, but finds solace in Gina, the kind and understanding makeup artist. Their tentative friendship is moving, tender and real. Beth barely knows Gina, but senses someone she can speak to about her loss.
Even Nina, whose funeral addiction is a way of seeking a comfort and camaraderie that is lacking in her real life, has a moment of honesty at her story’s end. Each of Strauss’s heroines is gratifyingly real and each story has something pointed to say not just about death and loss, but about people – our flaws, our goodness, our needs.
It’s a particular triumph that, in writing about death, Strauss makes each of her characters come to vibrant, pulsing life.