Caitlin Doughty is a woman on a mission to redefine death. Most of the established funeral industry can’t stand her, and in her newest book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find The Good Death, you sense the feeling is mutual. Yet, when it comes to discussing death and funerals, she is making an impact.
Doughty has made remarkable strides over the past few years to get people, especially younger people, to discuss mortality issues. Her memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, was a New York Times bestseller. Her weekly “Ask a Mortician” YouTube videos have hundreds of thousands of followers. She’s a leader of the #DeathPositive movement, dedicated to normalizing death discussions and taking actions to plan ahead. She’s funny and irreverent.
From Here to Eternity introduces readers to new and old ways humans embrace mortality. Her travels take her across the U.S. and around the world to document the old, the new, and what some would consider the weird, such as:
- The only open air cremation option in the U.S. in Crestone, Colorado, where those who have established residency can have a firewood-fueled disposition ceremony.
- A home funeral and green burial in Joshua Tree, California, facilitated by Doughty’s nonprofit funeral home Undertaking L.A.
- The Japanese tradition of kotsuage, a ceremony where family members use chopsticks to pick up the cremated bones of a loved one and place them in an urn. Watch this video about the process.
Let’s Talk About Mortality
A mission Doughty and I both share is to get more people, especially in the United States, to talk about our mortality. Less than 30% of Americans do any end-of-life planning: wills or trusts, advance medical directives and pre-need funeral planning. That will leave 70% or more of our loved ones scrambling to make expensive decisions and find information under duress of grief.
As Doughty says in the introduction:
One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death. Why do we refuse to have these conversations, asking our family and friends what they want done with their body when they die? Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put both our pocketbooks and our ability to mourn at risk.
She reports on death rituals from around the world to help Americans reclaim meaning and tradition in funerals and memorial services. She visited Mexico for the colorful celebration of Dia de los Muertos, where families build altars with photos, food and drink to welcome ancestor’s spirits for an annual visit. In the Indonesian ma’nene’ ceremony, families take mummified deceased loved ones out of graves, re-dress them, and speak to them. She also reported on creative disposition developments in Japan, Spain, and the U.S.
Decomposing with Purpose
She visits with Katrina Spade, who is pioneering the Urban Death Project in the United States. It’s an experiment to create body composting centers in urban areas, to minimize the use of cremation and save land. This process of corpse composting, which Spade calls recomposition, will result in a rich soil that can give rise to new life.
While writing about the messy process of decomposition, Doughty noted how the funeral industry evolved the role and perceptions of the sexes, and asserted reclaiming death care can actually be a feminist statement, saying:
When death care 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.
Maybe a process like recomposition is our attempt to reclaim our corpses. Maybe we wish to become soil for a willow tree, a rosebush, a pine — destined in death to both rot and nourish on our own terms.
In Spain and Japan, Doughty witnessed the efforts of corporate funeral homes to engage family interaction with their dead in meaningful ways. These included family rooms where the body could be visited with for days, a bathing room for the body’s “last bath on this Earth,” and witness cremations, where the family watches the body enter the retort.
Doughty offers a death positive outlook, even with the barriers she sees hospital systems and corporate funeral homes erecting between the dead and their families. She writes:
Death avoidance is not an individual failing; it’s a cultural one. Facing death is not for the faint-hearted. It is far too challenging to expect that each citizen will do so on his or her own. Death acceptance is the responsibility of all death professionals—funeral directors, cemetery managers, hospital workers. It is the responsibility of those who have been tasked with creating physical and emotional environments where safe, open interaction with death and dead bodies is possible….
Holding the space doesn’t mean swaddling the family immobile in their grief. It also means giving them meaningful tasks. Using chopsticks to methodically clutch bone after bone and place them in an urn, building an altar to invite a spirit to visit once a year, even taking a body from the grave to clean and redress it; these activities give the mourner a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose helps the mourner grieve. Grieving helps the mourner begin to heal.
Bravo to Caitlin Doughty and W.W. Norton for bringing forth From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find The Good Death. It’s an eye-opening travelogue well worth your time and attention. Here’s hoping the book gets more Americans to discuss and plan for their own deaths. After all, despite great advances in medical care, the mortality rate continues to hold steady at 100%.