From Here to Eternity, The Promise of Patriarchy, The Floating World, and more.
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Caitlin Doughty is no stranger to death. She’s a mortician at Undertaking LA, founder of the Order of the Good Death, and has spent almost 10 years coaching us into a better relationship with our inevitable doom. Her Youtube series “Ask a Mortician” is a myth-busting, truthtelling take on our funeral-industrial complex, and her new book, a sequel to 2015’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, has her traveling the world to see what Americans can learn from the death customs of other cultures. Throughout its eight chapters, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death looks death in the face with curiosity, an open mind, and a heaping tablespoon of sugar (to help the decomposing bodies go down).
Alone, or with fellow “death-positive” royalty such as Sarah Chavez of the Order of the Good Death and author Paul Koudounaris, Doughty explores Indonesia, where cleaning your grandmother’s corpse is not morbid but a way to sustain familial bonds, and Japan, where mourners go through cremains with chopsticks after staying together in a corpse hotel. Such rituals are a far cry from those in the United States, where the body is whisked away as quickly as possible and dressed up with embalming fluid and makeup. In the past, before the funeral industry really took off in this country, these customs might not have seemed so strange—even here, it was common for people to spend time with their dead loved ones and wash and dress them. This interaction is a powerful one and is necessary for our hearts and brains to begin processing the loss. Have you ever landed at home after a vacation and felt miles away from your previous destination, not just literally but emotionally? Allowing ourselves to experience the journey with our senses helps us better understand where we’re going and where our loved ones have gone.
In La Paz, Bolivia, people gather to pray to ñatitas: flower-adorned, chain-smoking
skulls celebrated as sources of good fortune and protection. Doughty meets with women whose homes are filled with multiple ñatitas and watches them “[use] their comfort with death to seize direct access to the divine from the hands of the male leaders of the Catholic Church.” It’s a beautiful ritual of respect for the dead and hope for the living—a reminder that death is, among other things, a feminist issue. When deathcare industrialized in the early 20th century, Doughty explains, there was a “seismic shift” in who cared for our dead—the job went from “visceral, primeval work” performed by women to a “science” performed by well-paid men. Women remain tasked with death, just less lucratively; they are more likely to care for aging parents and relatives. Additionally, death is woven into reproductive rights and the high number of people who die from domestic violence. It’s no wonder why, when Doughty visits a U.S. recomposition site that aims to turn human remains to compost, she notices that the main players in the project are all women.
The same is true for the broader deathpositive movement, where people such as Katrina Spade of the Urban Death Project (fitting last name, Katrina) and Michelle Acciavatti of Ending Well are all leading the charge toward a more authentic death. Recomposition, the search for that elusive good death, and so many other elements of the movement toward death acceptance are not just a reclamation of grief and of the body but a radical act; a “way to say, ‘I love and accept myself,’” according to Spade. Doughty agrees: “There is a freedom found in decomposition, a body rendered messy, chaotic, and wild.”
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death is a testament to the ubiquitous yet kaleidoscopic nature of loss, whose shards reflect the light of its community. While the previously unknown traditions from around the world encourage our meager death rituals with a kind of you-can-do-it pep, the stops in U.S. states such as California and North Carolina show the places where it’s already being done, whether in innovative recomposing forests or using the country’s only open-air funeral pyre, which was wheeled up the driveways of those who wanted to go out in flames before finding a permanent home in Creston, Colorado. Like Indonesian mourners brushing clean the bodies of their dead relatives, Doughty’s book exposes our human need for ceremony as a way to assign meaning to our lives—and to the end of them.
From Here to Eternity is a testament to the ubiquitous yet kaleidoscopic nature of loss, whose shards reflect the light of its community.