RHC 2017: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a nonfiction book about technology.

I needed a chaser after the book profiling the psychological impact of the act of killing, and this was just the thing. While Grossman’s book made me very uncomfortable (and that’s fine), this funny, fascinating death tour From Here to Eternity was oddly comforting.

Caitlin Doughty is a hero of mine. If you’re not familiar and you’re up for the subject matter, her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician is wonderful. She’s also the founder of the Order of the Good Death and Undertaking L.A., a funeral home whose stated mission is to return deathcare to the hands of the bereaved.

Doughty is a very passionate advocate of bringing death back into the public consciousness by bringing mourners closer to their dead loved ones, whether it’s through witnessing cremations, washing and preparing bodies, or spending unstructured, unpressured time with deceased loved ones. She argues that as a culture we’ve developed an unhealthy inability to process or honestly confront death. 

The most intimate experience I’ve had with death was the passing of my cat Ipso, which happened fairly recently. I’m not implying that pet and human death are the same thing, but I will say that both cause absolutely real grief. Ipso was the only being whose death I witnessed and whose body I cared for, and I’m so thankful we were able to euthanize her at home and that we buried her ourselves in the backyard.

To be clear, none of this was a shortcut around grief. Ipso’s death was emphatically not okay at all with me, but holding her after she was gone meant a lot. It was the moment when I picked her up to carry her outside where I understood – really understood – that she was gone forever. I didn’t mess around with any of the anger, denial, or bargaining stages of grieving and jumped straight into depression and acceptance.

I still miss my cat, and I’m crying right now typing this. But I felt like I got to say goodbye to her and her little orange physical presence in a way that I wouldn’t have at a vet’s office.

Anyway… wait, isn’t this supposed to be a post about technology? Bear with me. From Here to Eternity chronicles Doughty’s travels around the world observing a variety of international funeral and deathcare customs. Merriam-Webster defines technology as “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area.” Funerary customs involve lots of practical application, from our oldest technology (fire) to industrialized derivatives (crematoriums) to preservation methods (embalming, mummification) to natural sciences (vultures, composting) to magic (the worship of Bolivian ñatitas, or “little pug noses” -which has to be the most adorable way to refer to a human skull ever). In every chapter of this book, technology provides a means of interacting with (or avoiding confrontation with) death.

[Fine, I also read Managing Library Technology by Carson Block, which is an excellent resource if you’re in the profession and doing some technology planning. But that’s work stuff for me, and I don’t have a ton of thoughts and feelings about it. So…]

My only complaint about From Here to Eternity is that it’s short. I read it in nearly one sitting one Saturday while my household was trying to recover from a horrible mutant daycare virus. It was sort of like opening up a pint of ice cream you meant to enjoy over the course of three or four days only to find you’d eaten the whole damn thing before the Twin Peaks: The Return opening credit sequence had even finished. As a completely hypothetical example.

Doughty is a fantastic writer and guide to her subject. She gracefully manages to balance humor with, you know, the ultimate tragedy of existence. Her text is accompanied by black and white line illustrations, which I thought was a brilliant way of satisfying readers’ curiosity without exploiting the deceased that she met in her travels and without making her book potentially extremely upsetting for readers not quite ready to gaze upon decomposing bodies. While visiting a research station in North Carolina experimenting with methods of rapidly composting human bodies, Doughty herself admits:

It makes you uneasy when a body is somewhere it’s not ‘supposed’ to be, like seeing your chemistry teacher at the supermarket (112).

The book consists of eight chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. Each details a particular locale’s method of grappling with the realities of tissue that used to house people. For example, in Colorado, we meet the charming proprietors of the only open-air pyre in the country (they used to run an operation they referred to as a “Porta-Pyre”). In Michoacán, the book explores Días de los Muertos through the prism of pregnancy loss (it’s a beautiful chapter, and possibly my favorite in the collection). In Japan, she interviews a man who runs “a corpse hotel” – essentially, a space for families to spend time with the body of a deceased loved one in a home-like setting, with no pressure to leave and no pressure to perform grief. Bodies stay there for around four days, usually, and family members can come and go as they please.

Doughty gets into some highly personal spaces, and she acknowledges that at times her presence is potentially problematic. In a small village in Indonesia, where residents have an annual ceremony in which they disinter their dead to wash and spend time with the mummified bodies, she sees a German tourist elbowing locals out of the way to take pictures of a ritual with her iPad. Doughty chose not to attempt to barge in on a Tibetan sky burial, even though it would be her preferred means of disposal after her own death, due to overwhelming and inappropriate “thanotourism.”

Doughty is a funny writer, but she never loses sight of the fact that the corpses she encounters were people whose loss is deeply felt. She recognizes funeral customs for what they are – a final act of love. I really did find this to be a profoundly comforting book and not just a collection of morbidly fascinating trivia (though morbidly fascinating trivia abounds). Highly recommended.

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