by Elizabeth Felicetti
This time of year, right before the onslaught of Christmas décor, we see traces of death everywhere: resin animal skeletons in between pumpkins and plastic spiders. Day of the Dead sugar skull cookie cutters among colorful fake leaves and Halloween sale candy. If death creeps into your mind as the trees drop their leaves, consider joining Episcopal deacon and travel writer Lori Erickson as she embarks on a tutorial in death the summer her brother dies and their mother moves into a nursing home with dementia. As she ages, Erickson realizes “this loss thing isn’t going to get any easier… I buy sympathy cards in bulk, and when I stand at the checkout counter, watching as the clerk totals them up, I wonder what names I’ll be writing on the envelopes” (3).
Some chapter topics are actual travel destinations, like Egypt, where Erickson explores pyramids, the desert origins of mummification, and similarities between portrayals of Isis and Horus and Mary and Jesus. Any Episcopalians enamored of the New Zealand prayer book will particularly love Erickson’s trip to New Zealand, where, while “the adventure-travel writers went off to do bungee jumping and deep-sea diving,” she signed up for a week-long cultural tour put on by the indigenous Maori, leading to thoughtful explorations of ancestor veneration, reactions by Christian missionaries, and links between saints and ancestors. Her exploration of indigenous practices continues on a trip to Mexico City, where she explores ancient Mayan and Aztec practices and their influence on today’s Day of the Dead observances, as well as departures from some of the practices. I particularly resonated with this sentence: “In the end, a philosophy that doesn’t fully acknowledge the pain of suffering and death doesn’t make sense to me, no matter how appealing it might be at first acquaintance” (89). Erickson and her husband experience car trouble in the isolated spiritual center Crestone, Colorado, and learn how a similar experience affected artists who settled in Taos. In the final chapter she visits Rome, where she glimpses what many believe to be the bones of St. Peter; and Assisi, where she remembers the hymn attributed to St. Francis, in which he refers to what some call “the grim reaper” as “most gentle death.”
Interspersed with these chapters about physical travel destinations are provocative chapters about more ordinary ports of call such as nursing homes, which she aptly compares to college dormitories. A chapter about hospice opens with the author looking at her own signs of aging: gray hair and scaly patches on skin. Later, she ruminates about being on the other end of a visit from someone in “an ecclesiastical dog collar” one day. The chapter on funerals was my favorite, exploring the “makeover” death got in the nineteenth century and how many of our current customs came from the Victorians. Erickson points out how “died” migrated to “passed away” and today, even the “away” is often dropped, with “passed” becoming increasingly popular. While no longer being able to tell who’s in mourning while out in public may be liberating, Erickson points out “we lose something, too, as shared rituals become fewer and grief becomes a largely private burden, unnoticed by the larger world except for the brief flurry of Facebook comments after a death is announced” (96). Erickson points out in her chapter on graveyards that some people are fascinated by them—in the opening, she attends a cocktail reception in a mausoleum—while others “hope to enter one only after you’re dead” (127).
While the subject matter make sound grim, Near the Exit is infused with humor. Occasionally her copious personal asides distract, but overall, Erickson’s vocations as deacon and travel writer make her the ideal adventure guide for this topic.
Near the Exit closes with an epilogue, bringing her reflections to a poignant personal thread as she visits her mother in a nursing home and visits a sacred stone circle in Iowa. “It’s sad to contemplate leaving my loved ones,” Erickson writes, “and I’m sorry for the pain they’ll feel at my death. Another regret, one that’s much smaller but still present, is that I won’t be able to write about my trip to the afterlife, the most remarkable journey of all” (164). Readers will also be sorry not to have her humorous and insightful guidebook for our own final journeys.
Westminster John Knox Press
Elizabeth Felicetti is our book reviews editor. She is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and will graduate with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding School of Writing in 2020. She also reviews book for Christian Century and Kirkus Reviews. Elizabeth is obsessed with books and birds and is writing a memoir about her reluctant pilgrimage with the Virgin Mary. Read more on her Web site, https://elizabethfelicetti.com/