I did not set out to read a book on funerary practices. Neither did I foresee staying up to finish just one more chapter of it until one or two in the morning, turning pages, unable to pull myself away. But that’s what happened with Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity, a world-trotting exploration of funerary rites. It’s not that I’m particularly squeamish...
Okay, maybe I’m a little squeamish.
But this slim volume, full of captivating, enlightening, and humorous tidbits, is a—dare I say—uplifting exploration of what people the world over do to withstand loss and the bite of impermanence. This is death as viewed by a mortician: profound, unavoidable, natural, and a bit funny.
"The first few months after I opened my funeral home," Doughty writes in the introduction to this book, "a ringing phone qualified as a thrilling event[.] 'What if... what if someone died?' I'd gasp. (Well yes, dear, it's a funeral home—that would be the point.)"
Caitlin Doughty once worked in the Bay Area as a crematory technician, but she opened her own funeral home in L.A. to fill a gap in what she saw was an overly corporate environment to deal with something as momentous as death. There are politics, it turns out, when it comes to corpses. Doughty writes:
When deathcare became an industry in the early twentieth century, there was a seismic shift in who was responsible for the dead. Caring for the corpse went from visceral, primeval work performed by women to a "profession," an "art," and even a "science," performed by well-paid men. The corpse with all its physical and emotional messiness, was taken from women. It was made neat and clean, and placed in its casket on a pedestal, always just out of our grasp.
Whether at home or overseas, Doughty is a deliberate and studied observer. She's the judicious tour leader of a world you did not know you would be so interested to find out about. There are sky burials, burials by fire, natural burials, mummifications, and mourners who engage in complex daylong, weeklong, and even intergenerational-long rituals to process and understand death. Doughty's infectious curiosity and celebration of funerary customs become your own; pretty soon, you too, might take issue with the lack of options and freedom to grieve in the United States. “In our Western culture,” Doughty asks, “where are we held in our grief?”
In comparison to the pyres of India (Death you think you have defeated us, but we sing the song of burning firewood, one traditional song goes), or the altars of Mexico (decorated with marigolds, candles, confetti, and offering foodstuffs for the visiting spirits), the rather clinical, fluorescent, and disinfected tradition in the U.S. leaves much to desire.
Doughty relates the astonishing tale of one insensitive American doctor who in the single minutes following a death, waltzed into the room where the newly-grieving family sat bewildered, glanced at the medical chart, and pulled the plug on the inflatable mattress the body was still laying on, sending the body into upsetting motion, and then walked out, all without saying a word.
Deathcare in the U.S., Doughty claims, has not only made it impossible for immigrant and other religious groups to engage in their cultural traditions, it’s put the American people out of touch in dealing with loss. Bodies are handled by technicians, wakes last exactly two hours, and processions lead straight to the cemetery. In America, it's as if there were a deadline for contemplating death.
To Caitlin Doughty, though, death has a remarkable whiff of life. In describing her own wishes after passing, her enthusiasm is enough to make me second it:
Women’s bodies are so often under the purview of men, whether it’s our reproductive organs, our sexuality, our weight, our manner of dress. There is a freedom found in decomposition, a body rendered messy, chaotic, and wild. I relish this image when visualizing what will become of my future corpse.
Doughty is charming, humorous, and there is probably no better initiation into the behind-the-scenes and around-the-world of how we deal with death than this book. In From Here to Eternity, the rituals following a passing are actually in service for the living, and the nobility of a funeral delivers loved ones to the great beyond in just the right way.
'From Here to Eternity' is on sale in stores now. Caitlin Doughty is based in Los Angeles.
The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks!