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Indie game forces you to face your own mortality in a way that destigmatizes death

Creating an intimate, tactile relationship with society's greatest taboo
Image: laundry bear

We’re not allowed to talk about death.

In the abstract, sure, people are comfortable addressing the concept of death. Certainly we’re allowed to commiserate in public over the loss of a celebrity, or favorite TV character. But as any one who has first-hand experience with death will tell you, there is nothing more deafening than the silence that its stigma forces upon you as you grieve a loved one.

Personal deaths — the ones we watch play out in a funeral — are too ugly, too real, too close to home, too tangible. So, we don’t think about it. We can’t talk about it. We keep the logistics of death in the farthest reaches of our mind. To save ourselves the awkwardness of addressing the mortality of our human bodies, we ignore the bereaved, and feign that our avoidance of their grief is “politeness.” 

But the indie game Mortician’s Tale, by Laundry Bear, wants to change that. 

Described as a “death-positive” game, it aims to destigmatize the universal experience of death. But it doesn’t just do that by giving us permission to talk about it, an grief, or the industry that’s been built around dying. Mortician’s Tale does what only a video game can do: it forces you to form a tactile relationship with the day-to-day tasks of those who live with death.

Mortician’s Tale does what only a video game can do: it forces you to form a tactile relationship with the day-to-day tasks of those who live with death.

Playing as a mortician named Charlie, you join the team at Rose and Daughters Funeral Home, one of the last remaining mom-and-pop parlors standing up to the corporate conglomerate of Hillside the Heritage Enterprises Inc. Each day, you receive instructions from your boss through forwarded emails of grieving families, detailing how they’d like you to prepare the bodies of their deceased. 

Then you do it. Step by every gruesome step, you do the work of making death palatable to the living.

Every day you stare at a sanitized gurney, where a grayish, decaying body — which had only hours before been a regular  person like you or me — lies. Some of them still carry the vestiges of their loved ones’ care, like her favorite piece of jewelry.

Others, like the dirtied corpse of an unclaimed homeless man, haunt you because of the lack of personal items that you don’t need to remove before cremation (a method of disposal used for cost effectiveness.) You end the daily ritual by attending each service, talking to the bereaved, and bowing your head over their deceased. The homeless man’s funeral is the only service with an empty room. But you bow your head and honor his remains anyway.

Step by every gruesome step, you do the work of making death palatable to the living.

The tasks you must enact as the mortician seem at first purposefully disgusting. 

You pump the blood — making a scalpel incision near the neck, sticking in a tube, and draining each organ — to replace it with embalming fluid. You massage their limbs to keep the stiffness of rigor mortis at bay. You sew up their mouths, forcing their lips into peaceful, somber lines that reflect the wishful thinking of the people whom the dead left behind. Then there are the eyes, of course, requiring the insertion of eye caps and glue to keep them shut. 

You feel almost foolish for never having considered any of it — the human labor that actually goes into making a dead body less horrifying to the people already grieving the loss of the person who used to inhabit it.

All of this might paint a gruesome picture. But Mortician’s Tale succeeds because it is the exact opposite. 

The aesthetic is oddly pleasing, with a minimalist but telling color palette. The emails you receive are split between the painfully disoriented messages of the bereaved, to illuminating newsletters on the dos and don’ts of death etiquette. Most of all, they’re filled with the casual back-and-forth of coworkers and another friend in the death industry.

As each day passes, the initial disgust of the mortician’s task wanes. If anything, it is replaced with the strange comfort of ritual. The big, bad Grim Reaper transforms into the mundanity of everyday existence. You go to work. You work on dead bodies.

All of this might paint a gruesome picture. But Mortician’s Tale succeeds because it is the exact opposite. 

To many, this may all still sound horrifying or even inappropriate. But to people who have struggled to live with loss, this game admits to a truth that few other pieces of media ever dare to. 

Death is not the grandiose event you imagine. In fact, death could not be more banal, as the one common thing that happens to us all.

Instead of this great, looming, abstract monster far out in the distance, death becomes a body you touch, lying motionless in a casket, with a face stretched into an uncanny valley of simulated life. And all you can think about is how angry your loved one would be at the gauche decor in the funeral parlor. 

Death invades your commonplace experiences, like scrolling through your social media feed and being jolted by the face of the person who you lost — who is dead, except for the half-life she now leads in the digital world of her friends’ saddened Instagram posts.

Grievers coping with death through the mundanity of life

Image: laundry bear

Another seemingly jarring (yet comforting) aspect of Mortician’s Tale lies in the conversations between the grievers during each funeral. You might expect funerals to be dominated by talk of the dearly departed. But, mostly, they tend to center around the aching normalcy. They talk about how they wish they were at home binging Netflix, or how much they hate wearing stockings. 

Nothing could be more accurate. Because one of the most inconceivable, frightening things about actually facing death is how easily it becomes part of living.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes how, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” We imagine (or maybe hope) that the funeral “will be the moment to most severely test us.” We anticipate not being able to “‘get through it,’ rise to the occasion, exhibit the ‘strength’ that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.” 

But it’s not like that at all. There is no “correct” response to death. It is not an event that ends, or that you get to leave behind on the funeral parlor steps. It follows you. Everywhere. Until you have no choice but to find a way to live with the extraordinarily ordinary business of dying.

The cremation process

Image: LEARY BEAR

There is another, less personal, and a bit overbearing (while still important) message in Mortician’s Tale. Like all other aspects of life (whether Christmas, Valentines Day, or love itself), capitalism has commodified death and its vulnerable grievers — and it’s an injustice that is nowhere to be found in public discourse. But in the corporatization of death, the bereaved are preyed upon, and made to feel that their capacity to honor their dead goes only as deep as their pockets. And, often, this business strategy comes at not only their cost, but the expense of our environment.

One of the most inconceivable, frightening things about actually facing death is how easily it becomes part of  living.

But as the game makes clear, funerals are not really for the dead. They are for the living, as they try to make sense of absence by doing… something. Anything. And other times, the living just want to go back home and watch Netflix. Or gorge themselves on home-cooked food.

The living need to be able to talk about death, their daily experience of it, without the fear of being shunned because they broke society’s #1 most unspoken rule. 

That’s the gift that Mortician’s Tale provides: a space to experience death without pretense, or stigma, or the shame of being a walking reminder that we all become bodies on a gurney one day.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/10/25/morticians-tale-death-positive-indie-game/

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