I will begin this review by pointing out that Caitlin Doughty’s rather niche work will not be for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which collects together her memories and thoughts from working in a crematorium. Doughty has made her living as a mortician, and owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. She writes about such serious elements – the majority of which revolve around death – with a lot of snarky and sarcastic humour, and one cannot help but be entirely entranced by her stories and experiences. Her second book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death also very much interested me as a reader.
She argues, in both of her books, that death is a topic which should be spoken about more, but is something which many in the Western world particularly shy away from. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty begins by signposting her fascination of our ‘pervasive terror of dead bodies’. She writes in her introduction: ‘One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death… Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put… our ability to mourn at risk.’
Her aim in this book was to visit different places around the world to see how other cultures are not scared of the process of death, but rather embrace it, and make it a part of their own living. She travels all over the world – from three locations in the United States, to Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Bolivia.
Early on, Doughty sets out that in the United States, death has become an incredibly big business since the advent of the twentieth century. Everything has long been associated with cost, and with upselling – a better graveyard plot, a more superior wood used for the coffin, many ‘extras’ sold by different funeral homes. She believes that we need to reform funeral practices in the West, moving permanently away from profit-oriented practices, to ones which ‘do more to include the family’. These family-focused death practices are common around the world, and it is this which she keeps coming back to. Doughty writes, with a great deal of sensitivity, about the ways in which confronting death can bring peace, particularly for those in Western cultures, where such an attitude is generally suppressed.
Some of the practices which Doughty writes about are rare for foreigners or tourists to be able to attend. Others have really embraced the onlooker, though. At a Torajan funeral in Indonesia, for instance, the body is ‘transferred in a replica of a traditional Torajan home. These houses, known as Tongkonan, resemble no residence you’ve ever seen, standing high on stilts with a roof that sweeps up to two points in the sky. This corpse, inside his mini-house, was carried atop the shoulders of thirty-five young men.’ A ‘death tourism industry’ has sprung up around the Torajan funeral, with visitors coming from far afield to watch.
Of course, Doughty attends a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico, which was rather strangely inspired by James Bond. In Mexico, at the beginning of November, families invite their dead back to visit. Of one young man, who had passed away in the small city of Santa Fe de la Laguna, she writes: ‘He will continue to return as long as his family continues to show up, inviting him to come back among the living.’
On the other side of the world, at a Buddhist temple in Japan, technology has been used to enhance longstanding religious practices: ‘After the family keys in at the entrance,’ with a smart card, ‘the walls light up blue, except for one single Buddha shimmering white: no need to squint through names trying to find Mom – the white light will guide you straight to her.’ This white light leads to the ashes of a loved one, which can be kept in the temple for a long time. Also in Japan, a company called I-Can Corp has married together death and technology: ‘presents a Sims-like experience in which your ancestor’s virtual gravestone appears on screen in a green field. The user can, according to taste, light a virtual incense stick, place flowers, sprinkle water on the stone, and leave fruit and glasses of beer.’
Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of From Here to Eternity is the focus which Doughty places on the United States, and the way in which just a few individuals – for now, at least – are challenging the status quo. In Colorado, there is a single town which promotes the outdoor cremation, using a movable wooden pyre. In North Carolina, a group of medics and research scientists toe the line between ‘death-innovation and the deranged’, with a plan to “turn corpses into compost”, as the New York Times put it. Behind this is something called the ‘Urban Death Project’, an architectural blueprint for being able to compost human bodies in built-up urban areas, which have little – or no – space to bury their recent dead.
Throughout, Doughty poses many questions about how the individual would wish to be treated after their death, and the many options which are available to them – even in the reserved Western world. In Barcelona, for instance, stands an enormous funeral home which handles almost a quarter of all deaths in the city. They display dead ones behind glass, akin to something out of Snow White, which allows families to stay with them all day. A Spanish-style ‘viewing’ displays ‘a loved one in their coffin, surrounded by flowers, behind one large pane of glass, akin to a department store window.’ A Catalan-style viewing moves the open coffin into a glass display case in the centre of the room.
I haven’t read anything quite like From Here to Eternity before, but it reminded me somewhat of the rather funny Netflix travel series, ‘Dark Tourist’. The series, too, shows a Torajan funeral – rather squeamish to the Western viewer, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. Throughout, Doughty’s prose is clear and informative, and one can see that she is both passionate about her subject, and keen to impart her wisdom. I must admit that I did find From Here to Eternity a little gross in places, as Doughty certainly does not shy away from discussing fluids and the like, but it is ultimately fascinating, and eye-opening.
This is a great volume to dip in and out of, and to learn from. Some of the rituals which Doughty writes about are really quite beautiful, and I for one feel more comfortable discussing death as a result of reading this. It is perhaps an odd volume to choose during a pandemic, but what Doughty writes here is important – particularly as we face death on such a large and upsetting global scale.