It’s the time of year when the borders between the dead and the living become thin and spirits may pass between worlds. From Halloween, through All Saints Day, and All Souls Day which coincides with Dias de los Muertos (The Mexican Days of the Dead on November 1 and 2), skeletons, skulls, and graveyards are common sights. What better time to read Caitlin Doughty’s latest book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death? Doughty is a Los Angeles based mortician and owner of Undertaking L.A., a nonprofit funeral home. She also founded a nonprofit organization called The Order of the Good Death which promotes natural and low cost death services. Additionally, she hosts the online series, Ask a Mortician in which she presents weird and wonderful facts about death (You can subcribe! I do!). Doughty is a crusader in the cause of bringing sense and meaning into our American, disconnected approach to death.
Doughty’s first book was a New York Times bestseller about her early work in a Crematorium, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory. I highly recommend it.
Reading her latest book is like reading a travelogue by your funniest, best friend who, although irreverent, is always deeply respectful of the practices of others. Her travels take her to a Colorado pyre, the United States only open air cremation site. Next stop is Indonesia where the dead are taken out of their coffins every now and then for general cleaning, wardrobe changes, or for a portrait or picnic with the family. Other stops include Mexico, of course, and a body farm (AKA natural cemetery) in North Carolina where scientists are working to perfect human composting. In Japan, technology is smartly utilized and families may visit loved ones in a corpse hotel with all the comforts of home or select via computer the urn they’ve come to visit from a wall of blue, glowing Buddhas. In Bolivia, skulls or nantitas are collected and adorned with beanies, flowers, and all manner of decoration and are kept in homes and revered for their prayer answering abilities.
These are just some highlights of the fascinating practices Doughty encounters and writes about in her travels. She admits that she wasn’t able to witness her own preferred after death experience, which I will leave to your imagination and reading.