Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
If you’ve read thirtysomething California funeral director Caitlin Doughty’s previous book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, you’ll remember her account of training at a traditional San Francisco crematorium. It was clear that she was critical of and uncomfortable with the very American death industry she was a part of. Since then she’s gone out on her own, starting an alternative funeral home called Undertaking LA. She’s also a familiar web presence through the online community Order of the Good Death and her Ask a Mortician YouTube videos.
From Here to Eternity asks us to confront our bias against other cultures’ “savage” death rituals and see how they might be healthier than the usual Western approach of denying and hiding death. It’s all relative, after all: when Doughty meets a young man in Belize who stole his grandmother’s corpse so it wouldn’t be subjected to an autopsy, she’s surprised by his horror at the thought of the cremations she performs.
Doughty starts off close to home with a trip to Crestone, Colorado, whose residents have the option of paying $500 to be cremated on a movable pyre. Only recently has cremation overtaken burial as the most popular post-mortem choice in the United States; in the UK, where cremation has always been more culturally acceptable, the ratio stands at more like 3:1. It’s hard to be creeped out at the description of this open-air cremation when Doughty is so careful to preserve the dead person’s individuality and dignity, referring to “Laura’s bones” and “Laura’s head.” This is a personalized experience rather than an anonymous one.
Many of the other rituals Doughty observes are about maintaining this personal connection to the dead. In South Sulawesi, Indonesia, corpses remain with their families for months or years and are preserved as mummies. Even after burial, they’re exhumed from their coffins every few years or so for cleaning and photo opportunities. Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a chance to commune with the dead in cemeteries lit with candles. In Bolivia, indigenous belief exists alongside Catholicism, and ñatitas – skulls endowed with names and specific miracle-working powers – are given an annual celebration day.
Other destinations include a North Carolina body farm that is attempting to build composting centres for corpses, a Japanese columbarium where you find your loved one’s remains using a smart card, and Joshua Tree Memorial Park, a site of natural burials. A chapter set in Spain was the odd one out for me; it struck me as incomplete and not adding anything to the whole. The one ritual that is conspicuous in its absence is the sky burials of Tibet, which Doughty wasn’t able to witness for the book even though it would be her first choice for her own body.
Doughty ends with a tour of a Vienna church crypt that displays mummified corpses. Vienna is an extremely popular destination, yet she’s the only one there. No other tourists wanted to ruin their day with a preview of what awaits us all.
Despite the book’s jokey asides and deliciously ghoulish black-and-white illustrations (by Landis Blair), Doughty is completely serious in her critique of standard Western attitudes toward death: the “corporatization and commercialization of deathcare” have held us back from the solace to be found in ritual, she says. All the disparate, culture-specific rituals she witnesses on this tour are about making death more real by giving it a physical presence. Sometimes, as in Indonesia, that’s through the endurance of the corpse itself; other times the presence of the dead is more symbolic. But in every case the idea is that instead of there just being a hole, there’s something or someone there “holding the space.” Doughty believes it’s the responsibility of everyone in the death business to encourage a culture that hides death to be more open about it; “We avoid the death that surrounds us at our own peril.”
Some may think a book like this would be too morbid for their tastes, but I can assure you that Doughty is a charming and reassuring guide through the underworld. This certainly isn’t your average travel book, but it’s all the better for that.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance editor and writer originally from Maryland, USA. Her book reviews appear in print and online publications in the USA and UK as well as on her blog, Bookish Beck. She reads way too many books about death.
Caitlin Doughty, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 2018). 978-1474606516, 248 pp., hardback.
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