What a won­der­ful way to go

For Caitlin Doughty, death is some­thing to em­brace rather than re­coil from, finds Kim Kelly

The Guardian Weekly - - Books -

One of the most com­pelling scenes in Caitlin Doughty’s new book, From Here to Eter­nity: Trav­el­ing the World to Find the Good Death, takes place in the small town of Cre­stone, Colorado. The body of a woman – who is called Laura – is care­fully wrapped in a co­ral-tinted shroud and placed on a smooth con­crete pyre. The scent of burn­ing ju­niper branches per­fumes the air. Sur­rounded by those who’d known and loved her (as well as the au­thor, who’d been in­vited to ob­serve), the body grad­u­ally turns to ash be­neath. The cer­e­mony takes place at the only open-air pyre in the west­ern world and is one of al­ter­na­tive fu­ner­als that Doughty ex­plores.

“It was an hon­our, but to be hon­est, I was pretty jeal­ous,” Doughty said when I asked her how it felt to have wit­nessed the final good­bye. “There was so much rit­ual power to it. It made me think about how many cre­ma­tions I’ve wit­nessed in my life that were in big in­dus­trial ma­chines, and how it doesn’t com­pare at all. I would be ly­ing to say that I didn’t want this for my­self and for the peo­ple I help as well.”

Last month when we spoke, Doughty’s new book had just landed on the New York Times best­seller list. Doughty, who cur­rently helms a pro­gres­sive non-profit fu­neral home called Un­der­tak­ing LA (and who doc­u­mented her for­mer ex­ploits as a cre­ma­tory op­er­a­tor, fu­neral di­rec­tor and mor­ti­cian in her best­selling de­but, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Cre­ma­tory) has emerged as a sort of de facto fig­ure­head for the steadily grow­ing death-pos­i­tiv­ity move­ment.

Since launch­ing a “death ac­cep­tance” col­lec­tive with the aim of pro­mot­ing more open, hon­est en­gage­ment with death, The Or­der of the Good Death, back in 2011, she has had nu­mer­ous speak­ing en­gage­ments to dis­cuss des­tig­ma­tis­ing death, dy­ing and the de­ceased. She first gained pub­lic no­tice thanks to her wildly pop­u­lar Ask a Mor­ti­cian video series on YouTube, but has truly found her niche as a spokes­woman for the con­cept of death pos­i­tiv­ity, which in­volves em­brac­ing one’s own mor­tal­ity, ac­cept­ing the in­evitabil­ity of the end, and work­ing to­wards hav­ing a good death, one that comes free of pain. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a fas­ci­nat­ing, of­ten hi­lar­i­ous warts-and-all look into the busi­ness of death, and now, with From Here to Eter­nity, Doughty’s mis­sion is sim­ple: to learn how to change the Amer­i­can death in­dus­try and our own at­ti­tudes to­wards death for the bet­ter.

Doughty may cut a som­bre fig­ure, but her sense of hu­mour and world­view are far more imp­ish than di­a­bol­i­cal. She pep­pers her sen­tences with self­dep­re­cat­ing wise­cracks and her writ­ing will give you the gig­gles as well as send a chill down your spine. But her will­ing­ness to joke about death never comes across as ghoul­ish or flip­pant. Her com­fort with the sub­ject and all of its at­ten­dant awk­ward­ness seems rooted in her bones, some­thing that’s as much learned as it is in­ten­tional.

“Death is such a dif­fi­cult topic,” she says. “Who wants to sit down and talk about their ad­vanced di­rec­tive, or talk about what some­body wants done with their body when they die? That just seems like one other emo­tional bur­den, so if you’re not treat­ing it with hu­mour and a light­heart­ed­ness that makes it seem like not an­other in­cred­i­bly emo­tion­ally drain­ing task, no­body’s go­ing to do it or have these con­ver­sa­tions.”

It’s that level of em­pa­thy and self-aware­ness that en­abled her to gain ac­cess to peo­ple’s most pri­vate, sa­cred rit­u­als dur­ing her re­search for the book, which sees her travel from Laura’s open-air cre­ma­tion to In­done­sia, Spain, Ja­pan, Mex­ico and Bo­livia (as well as North Carolina and Cal­i­for­nia), where she spends time with fam­ily mem­bers both liv­ing and dead.

On her jour­ney, she meets burial icons, bleached skulls and sacrificial pigs in In­done­sia’s Tana To­raja moun­tains; she ex­plores West­ern Carolina Univer­sity’s body farm, where sci­en­tists work to turn corpses into com­post; in Tokyo, she’s in­vited to pick up a pair of chop­sticks and join a fam­ily in sort­ing bone frag­ments from a pile of ash that was once a loved one. Through­out each ex­pe­ri­ence, she sees how, in each of the other cul­tures she en­coun­ters, death is seen as nat­u­ral, nor­mal and, in some cases, so un­re­mark­able that shar­ing a bed with your grand­fa­ther’s mum­mi­fied body seems as mun­dane as wash­ing your face in the morn­ing. It’s a stark con­trast from the Amer­i­can way of death, which Doughty is hell­bent on re­form­ing through her own death ac­tivism as part of the greater move­ment, which she and Or­der of the Good Death di­rec­tor Sarah Chavez are con­tin­u­ally work­ing to make more in­clu­sive.

“Every place around the world feels the same kind of sor­row when some­one dies,” she says. “One of the rea­sons I wanted to write the book was that I’d hear peo­ple say, ‘Oh, they just did this with the body, how dis­re­spect­ful, they just don’t care about their dead,’ and for me it’s like, ‘What are you talk­ing about? They’re not dis­hon­our­ing their dead’.”

“If they’re mum­mi­fy­ing them, if they’re cre­mat­ing them on a pyre, if they’re hav­ing vul­tures eat them, all of those things are be­ing done with tremen­dous re­spect and hon­our. So we can’t say what we do is dig­ni­fied and what ev­ery­body else does is dis­re­spect­ful, that’s lu­di­crous.”

As a self-de­scribed “six-foot [1.8 me­tres] tall white lady in a polka dot dress”, Doughty took es­pe­cial care to en­sure that her in­ter­est in rit­u­als – the ma­jor­ity prac­ticed by peo­ple of colour – didn’t feel ex­ploita­tive or preda­tory to those who wel­comed her into their lives. “That was im­por­tant to me, be­cause ob­vi­ously, ‘white girl looks at other cul­tures and gives opin­ions’ could go so wrong,” she says. “I think what helped me most is that I al­ready have a some­what neg­a­tive view of my own coun­try’s death rit­u­als, specif­i­cally the in­dus­try that runs death in Amer­ica, and I’m try­ing to re­form that in­dus­try; I saw vis­it­ing these other places as look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion, where I’m look­ing to them and say­ing, ‘Help us, please, help us fig­ure this out!”

Ul­ti­mately, Doughty hopes that From Here to Eter­nity will open peo­ple’s eyes to al­ter­na­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards death, and other op­tions for their own burial be­yond the Amer­i­can way – with all of its chem­i­cals, con­crete and ner­vous, al­most clin­i­cal, de­tach­ment from the phys­i­cal­ity of death.

Her com­fort with the sub­ject and all of its at­ten­dant awk­ward­ness seems rooted in her bones

Sammy Z

Hold it … Doughty ques­tions tra­di­tional fu­ner­als

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