Saturday, July 13, 2019

A refreshing look at Death

From Here to Eternity; Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
by Caitlin Doughty
Reviewed by NC Weil

Even as the American funeral industry strives to sanitize death, increasing numbers of us are questioning the institutions, chemicals, caskets, and the secrecy that wall us off from those we love soon after they have died.

This entertaining look at funerary practices worldwide offers plenty of examples of ways to celebrate the departed. Alongside this, Doughty, a Los Angeles funeral director, offers a pointed critique of societies’ relative comfort about the fact of death, and how cultural squeamishness robs us of acts of loving farewell: “A sense of purpose helps the mourner grieve.”  One of the strong points of this witty book is the abundant illustrations by Landis Blair, dispelling the revulsion and fear that for many of us surround dead bodies, mummies, and skeletons.

With Doughty as our guide, we visit communities and learn about burial practices in Colorado, North Carolina, California, Mexico, Bolivia, Indonesia, Tokyo, and Barcelona. To say that attitudes vary among this sample is the understatement of the year. In Indonesia, she visits families who lovingly dress up and groom their dead loved ones, even sleeping alongside them, during an annual festival. In Tokyo, mourners can visit the ashes of their dead relations in high-tech halls where there is nevertheless a strong sense of communion with the departed.

In Crestone, Colorado, a portable pyre enables a natural cremation celebration. In La Paz, Bolivia, indigenous villagers adorn and pray to skulls, asking for intercession in earthly matters. In North Carolina, a university professor studies decomposition in an effort to perfect techniques of composting the dead. We see there are many ways to deal with bodies, and by the time we’re done, we may be ready to think about our own flesh in a new light.

The challenge Doughty spells out for us is to push against a funeral industry that separates us not from death but from loved ones who have died. By showing how we can participate in the last phase of their bodies, she inspires us to look in the face this mortality we all await, and to embrace it instead of hiding from it. Give this book a read, then give some thought to what you want done with your remains, and what you don’t.