Sunday Morning! “From Here to Eternity” by Caitlin Doughty
Perhaps you reach middle age when you start attending more funerals than weddings. It was at one such service a decade or so ago that my grandmother (now deceased) started musing about the uselessness of modern funerals. “Why don’t they just shoot the bodies into space?!” she suggested. “Well, don’t put me here when I die! I just want (her husband) to make me a coffin in his shop”- my grandfather was an expert carpenter- “and then we can use it as a coffee table until I’m dead, and when I die, you just dig a hole and bury me in the backyard!”
Grandma was a character, I should mention. The other family members were, I suppose understandably, uncomfortable with this suggestion and they gave her a traditional burial a few years later. But Caitlin Doughty would have taken Grandma’s side on this; a California mortician, YouTube celebrity, and advocate for the reform of funeral practices, she sees the American funeral industry for what it is: a huge business based in selling plots and coffins, while reminding us that funerals were once “family and community-run affairs”. My grandmother grew up in the mountains of West Virginia in the 1930s in a Polish immigrant family, so it’s entirely possible she remembered the old ways of what Doughty calls “deathcare”.
Of course, a culture’s death practices are often unique to that culture. Doughty’s recent book “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death” is a sort of death-tripping travelogue around the globe to show how different people deal with their dead; a decent alternate title might have been “Mondo Morte”.
She first takes us to Crestone, Colorado, site of the only open funeral pyre in America, where the flames are limited to locals who have passed on- no outsiders burned. Doughty notes that the average American funeral costs $8,000 to $10,000, while the Crestone pyre costs $500, mostly for wood. It is a good way to avoid the funeral industry. On the other hand, a funeral pyre does release “carbon aerosols”, which are greenhouse gases. Talk about “man-made global warming”!
At another extreme is Tana Taraja in Indonesia, where families keep the mummified remains of deceased relatives around the house for months or even years until the family can afford the proper funeral ritual sacrifice. In Japan, meanwhile, the cremation rate is a staggering 99.9% and Doughty visits the high tech Ruriden Columbarium with its 2,046 illuminated Buddha statuettes giving a Las Vegas touch to the interment of cremated remains. She also details the fascinating Japanese kotsuage custom in which the cremated remains are picked up and deposited in the funeral urn with chopsticks- the only time in which it’s appropriate for two people to hold the same item with chopsticks apparently.
In La Paz, Bolivia, decorated skulls are paraded at the annual Día de las Ñatitas, while in Barcelona, viewings are held with bodies behind glass. Doughty is, unsurprisingly, less squeamish than most of us around dead bodies and she takes a somewhat breezy approach to “thanotourism”, while remembering that the point of death rituals is to “hold space” for grief, and not to gawk like a, well, regular tourist. Her quick wit will alleviate some of the fear that many readers will have around the subject of death, while mostly remaining respectful of the dead folks she works with everyday. It’s a surprisingly enjoyable read about corpses with helpful illustrations by Landis Blair.
I was most fascinated by North Carolina’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST) where donated bodies are, essentially, composted. This seems to me the ideal way to be disposed of. There are companies that will bury your ashes with a biodegradable cup and seed to grow into a tree. Ignoring the terrifying possibility of haunted trees, Doughty notes that human ashes make terrible soil. She seems to lean towards what happens in Joshua Tree, California, where you can be buried in a shroud. Her first choice, however, would be consumption by vultures in the Dahkma “tower of silence“- what is known as “excarnation”. Doughty’s group, The Order of the Good Death, advocates for natural burial- that which allows for ready decomposition- and acceptance of death.
Death is one of those ever-present concerns for us, if usually at a subconscious level. Animals don’t spend much time worrying about death, but we live with the awareness that one day we will not live. At my undergrad university, the Philosophy department offered a course with the ominous title “Death” and the running joke was that not everyone would take the course, but we would all take the final. By comparison to some cultures, the North American style of funeral seems to suffer from excess aestheticism and insufficient ritual, and perhaps it’s an attempt to bury the dead without admitting we’re there to bury the dead.
Which is probably what my grandmother was rebelling against. In retrospect, she was absolutely right and we should have buried her where she wanted to be laid to rest (shooting her into space being far outside our budget).
So, what are YOU reading, watching, playing, pondering, or creating this weekend?