From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, 4 1/2 Stars

I first heard about this book when a friend of mine went to a reading in D.C. She was raving about the author, Caitlin Doughty, host of Ask a Mortician, Founder of The Order of the Good Death and owner of Undertaking LA, a nonprofit funeral home. How she finds the time to do all this? I have no idea.

Her mission is to help people make death a part of life. She points out that so many of us are afraid of death. And why? Because it is certainly coming for each and every one of us. We can avoid many perils in life but in the end, death will get us. There’s just no way around it.

I read about a book called Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death about 10 years ago now. And it’s crazy I remember it so well because sometimes I can’t even remember books I read last week!

The book addresses the funeral industry and discussed new things people are doing to be remembered, including making jewelry from ashes, releasing doves, and all kinds of things from traditional to quirky. And I found the book so fascinating! So I knew when my friend posted about Cailtlin’s book I needed to check it out.

From the Publisher:

The best-selling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with “dignity.”

Fascinated by our pervasive terror of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty set out to discover how other cultures care for their dead. In rural Indonesia, she observes a man clean and dress his grandfather’s mummified body. Grandpa’s mummy has lived in the family home for two years, where the family has maintained a warm and respectful relationship. She meets Bolivian natitas (cigarette- smoking, wish- granting human skulls), and introduces us to a Japanese kotsuage, in which relatives use chopsticks to pluck their loved- ones’ bones from cremation ashes. With curiosity and morbid humor, Doughty encounters vividly decomposed bodies and participates in compelling, powerful death practices almost entirely unknown in America. Featuring Gorey-esque illustrations by artist Landis Blair, From Here to Eternity introduces death-care innovators researching green burial and body composting, explores new spaces for mourning— including a glowing- Buddha columbarium in Japan and America’s only open-air pyre— and reveals unexpected new possibilities for our own death rituals.

My Review:

This book was everything I expected it to be! Caitlin is a masterful storyteller. She takes the reader on a trip around the world to learn about how other cultures celebrate life and embrace death. And all the while, her voice stays consistent. She is respectful of other practices, and also keeps a tongue in cheek sense of humor throughout the book, which I think is very important when dealing with the sobering topic of death.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the other cultures traditions and it is truly food for thought. Why are we so scared of death in our country? It’s like a taboo, no one wants to talk about it. When someone loses a loved one, many of us don’t know how to provide comfort or support. We are at a loss to help, to love others.

On our trip around the world, the reader encounters some truly strange traditions. In Indonesia, family members unwrap their mummified loved ones to clean and even prop them up outsides their homes. And in Bolivia, people collect natitas, skulls with special powers to connect the living and the dead. They keep them on display in their homes and bring them out to share with others during a yearly festival.

But just as we may find these traditions strange, many other cultures find our traditions odd as well. As Doughty points out, in America, death is big business. The average casket costs $7,000 and we fill the bodies with chemicals to preserve them but then we almost immediately bury them or cremate them.

And what do we do with our grief? Everything having to do with American funerals is strange and uncomfortable. Where can we find new traditions to better grieve our losses?

My husband has always said that when he dies, he doesn’t want a big to-do. He wants me to throw his body out in the woods somewhere and walk away. His point is that it won’t be him anymore and he doesn’t see the point in spending a bunch of money to bury him or visiting his grave.

I think a lot of people feel similarly. And I really love Caitlin’s voice in this area. She is working to make death more a part of life, less taboo and more natural.

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