In From Here to Eternity, mortician Caitlin Doughty chronicles her travels around the world looking at other cultures’ death rituals. The basic premise of the book is that Western societies – particularly North America – lack rituals for talking about and processing death, making grieving harder and distancing people from the natural cycle of life. The blame for this in Doughty’s eyes lands squarely on the American (and, to a lesser extent, wider European) funeral industry, for whisking bodies away hours after death and keeping them away. As a result, according to Doughty, death has become taboo, dead bodies deemed too upsetting to be seen – and thus death becomes more strange and upsetting, not less.
So. What are the alternatives and how do they help their practitioners? Doughty visits the USA’s only open-air pyre, and a “body farm” where corpses are allowed to disintegrate naturally into the earth; she witnesses people in Sulawesi caring for the mummified bodies of their relatives, kept in their own special houses; she looks at the Japanese kotsuage ritual, which sees mourners sort cremated bones using chopsticks. What many of these rituals have in common is an ongoing, formalised relationship with the dead and/or the dead body: an acknowledgement that death goes hand-in-hand with life.
It’s clear that Doughty thinks that this closer relationship with death is A Good Thing; but she’s also refreshingly aware of the dangers of becoming just a cultural tourist, writing of her embarrassment with American tourists visiting the funerals at Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, and of her own resolution to avoid disrespect to the participants in the various rites described in the book.
It is not particularly a balanced book; don’t go into it expecting evidence-based argument or an exhaustive survey of people’s emotions around the Western funeral industry! Although she does give Catalan funerals a fair look-in, and looks at more modern facilities such as a glowing Buddhist columbarium or a warehouse-like place in Japan that allows you to call up your relative’s ashes to a specific viewing slot automatically. As a book that takes it as read that Western modes of relating to death are fucked-up, and that we have useful things to learn from other cultures, it’s an entertaining and fascinating read.