This Author Completely Changed the Way I See Death
This week holds Halloween, All Souls Day, Dia de Los Muertos and who knows what other otherwordly, spooky-adjacent, death-centric holidays. I don’t read a ton of scary books myself, so I always struggle with what to post that’s thematic this week.
Fortunately, my friend and fellow writer, Tom Little of Magic City Bands and fellow death-writing enthusiast came to help me out. We’re both big fans of Caitlin Doughty, an LA-based mortician, death positive activist, and author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Tales From the Crematory and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. I’ve read both and they completely changed the way I see death, dying, and grieving for the better.
Tom was particularly struck by the latter, so happy deathly holidays and enjoy his take on Doughty’s book.
A guest post by Tom Little
“Death avoidance is not an individual failing; it’s a cultural one,” says mortician Caitlin Doughty in her latest book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.
Doughty believes that long-standing funeral practices in the U.S. have distanced the bereaved from their loved ones, and this division could interfere with proper grieving. She has dedicated her time outside the mortuary to ease Western anxieties surrounding death. In 2011, she founded the Order of the Good Death to encourage mourners to be more involved in the care of their deceased.
From Here to Eternity details Doughty’s observations of death practices around the world, from a community pyre in Colorado to exhumation-reunions in Indonesia. In each chapter, Doughty establishes the cultural context for the practices without sensationalizing the way others handle their dead. As Doughty speaks with locals at funerals, cemeteries, and festivals, we are given a glimpse into one of the most sincere and intimate aspects of their society.
The mortician sought out these death customs to see what we’re largely missing in the U.S.
Last year, NPR conducted an investigation of our funeral industry’s pricing and marketing methods, and the results were bleak. With the reliance on such an institutionalized service to handle our deceased, Doughty argues that we have “fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to proximity, intimacy, and ritual around death.”
The central issue is that we’re burdensomely averse to death–not just in the self-preservation sense–we are daunted by it. We’re intimidated by the inevitable pain of losing someone, the social awkwardness of emoting in the presence of others, the fear of having to move on. We’re gripped with existential anxiety when we contemplate a world going on without us. With all of life’s other problems, it’s simply easier to avoid thinking about it.
While she’s not advocating that we should adopt all the practices depicted in her book, Doughty believes that we could stand to learn something from that willingness to look death in the face. She spells out her hopes clearly in the introduction: “We need to reform our funeral industry, introducing new practices that aren’t so profit-oriented, and that do more to include the family.”
The way we mourn is informed by our culture, and as From Here to Eternity depicts, our dealings with death can remind us of who we are and reaffirm our place in the lives of others.
In Japan, the living honor the dead through prayers. While in Tokyo, Doughty visits the Ruriden columbarium, a resting place that accommodates Buddhist memorial traditions with modern tech. Every individual interred at Ruriden is represented by a crystal Buddha statue, all arranged along the walls of a hexagonal room. When visitors come to pray for a loved one, they may key-in their name or swipe a smart card. Their loved one’s Buddha figure will glow in response. The LED lights are a sight to behold, inspired by the Buddhist afterlife.
Ruriden is the final resting place of many people who left no one to remember them. They were Kodokushi, “lonely deaths,” often elderly, displaced, and isolated. Yajima jushoku, the head monk at Ruriden, has taken it upon himself to see that no one there is forgotten, and begins each morning at the columbarium by lighting up the Buddhas of all those who passed on that date. Even if they left no one behind, he ensures that someone is there to pray for them.
While in Japan, Doughty also examines the practice of kotsuage, a custom that requires mourners to physically interact with their loved one’s remains. Crematoriums in Japan do not reduce bone to powder as they do in the U.S., leaving large fragments within the ashes. It is the duty of the family to place these pieces into an urn, handling the bone with chopsticks. From toe to skull, the ritual serves as a mindful, hands-on means of laying the dead to rest.
The ritual allows mourners to confront the reality that this is the end. In Indonesia, however, the Torojan community interacts with their mummified dead as a way to maintain connections after death. A body may remain in the family home for years after dying, and their presence in the family doesn’t end when they are entombed. Every three years, they’re taken out of their graves, washed, and clothed, all acts of service to keep spiritual ties strong.
These reverent, affectionate handlings of the remains demonstrate a familiarity with the dead that has no equivalent in contemporary American culture. We are by no means obligated to degrease and enshrine our dear aunt’s bones if that’s not our vibe, but Doughty suggests that we should at least allow ourselves the necessary time to process her passing before sealing her remains in a concrete vault.
Now, Americans have historically observed some noteworthy death customs, but as the author laments, an increasingly commercialized funeral service has replaced them. The Appalachian practice of sitting up with the dead called for the bereaved to keep the deceased company through the night after their passing. The body was in the home for all to see, cleaned and cared for by the family.
Doughty identifies a gradual drifting away from these customs beginning as far back as the Civil War, when embalming became more widespread. “A century has proven the perfect amount of time to for citizens to forget what funerals once were” family- and community-run affairs.” Although I can recall anecdotes of sitting up occurring well into the ‘80s, it has fallen out of common practice as we began dying in hospital beds rather than our own.
Naturally, a book about death and our response to it is going to have some heartbreaking moments, when grief and pain are on full display. While the mortician can be a bit cabaret while talking shop, she knows that a story’s strongest emotions don’t need overdressing.
In a chapter on Mexican customs, Doughty tells the deeply personal story of her Mexican-American colleague. The woman lost her son six months into her pregnancy, and coping with the loss within a disenfranchised environment adds levels of pain and confusion that Doughty handles with care. We’re given a glimpse into the social seclusion of a denied mother, the hostility of protesters outside a clinic, and the familial expectation to hide her roots.
But is was her heritage that gave her solace, and Doughty commends the people of Mexico for their long-established acquaintance with death. From the work of Frida Kahlo to the observance of Día de los Muertos, Mexican culture had many avenues through which the grief-stricken woman could engage with her pain.
The chapter also takes us to private homes and a candlelit cemetery in Michoacán, where families gather for Día de los Muertos. The tradition holds that the veil between this life and the next wears thin, and the spirits of the dead may return to visit their families and friends. The living arrange altars with gifts and mementos, and they decorate the graves of the departed–acts of service and memory. The senses are engaged through song, light, and the scent of incense.
In recent years, the pre-Columbian custom has spread throughout the U.S., from California to Alabama. For Mexican-Americans that feel a growing distance from their heritage, these public observances provide an opportunity to remember not only their loved ones, but their history as well. The holiday is open to people of all backgrounds, though, to any who would embrace the occasion in memory of someone they’ve lost. With faces decorated as jovial skulls, it’s a reminder to appreciate life while we have it, as one day candles will be lit for us.
Death positivity isn’t an eagerness to die. It’s the acceptance that death will inevitably come for us and our loved ones. There’s no avoiding the pain of loss, but pretending that it will never happen will only make things worse. Before the time comes to pick a casket, an urn, or offerings for an altar, Doughty encourages us to make plans and talk openly about what will happen. She hopes that in the midst of grief, we will do something meaningful with our feelings.