Ever wonder if how the way your culture approaches death is the best way to approach death? Ever wonder about it all? From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty discusses the methods and traditions regarding death in cultures around the world. She gives brilliant descriptions of rituals and traditions from the people of Tana Toraja, Indonesia; Barcelona, Spain; Japan; and La Paz, Bolivia, among many, many others. Beside each of these descriptions is an illustration by Landis Blair to keep you engaged.
As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.”
The way each of these peoples approach death, including the various Americans the author observes, is fascinating and thought-provoking. My personal experience with death aligns with some cultures’ desire to provide the family with as much time to grieve the loss with the physical body as possible. I know I felt that desire in my times of loss. It’s the connection long after death – with the bones – that I have no experience with and get a chill thinking about. But it is precisely that chill that the author is looking at and questioning.
In Barcelona, families have the ability to spend all day with their dead loved one laying in a glass casket (they’re not embalmed). Bolivia gives an interesting cultural significance to skulls. Individuals dream of and dig up skulls of loved ones and strangers alike, then dress up their bones and attribute magical powers to them. In Japan, people may cremate their loved ones and then pick through the ashes to fill an urn. In North Carolina, there’s a field of bodies being used for science. Each snapshot provides the rationale behind it and the authors lets you make up your own mind about how you feel about it.
The author also discusses her experience as a funeral home director in America and with cremations. She talks about the very few people who insist on being present for the cremation. Americans don’t want to think of their loved ones burning, I suppose. For some reason they take no issue with seeing them placed in the ground. Also, cities pass ordinances relegating crematoriums to industrialized areas and places no one would ever want to go, let alone to say goodbye to their loved one. Of course, I’ve never been invited to a cremation either… so it seems unlikely people know that’s an option.
This book also touches upon the environmental factor of death. How the way we choose to dispose of our dead impacts (or doesn’t) the environment. That part was even more interesting to me. I wonder if we will get to a point with our environment that it comes before our emotional connections. I suppose we’ll see.
Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.
Yes – these appear to be morbid topics, but as someone who seeks to be well-rounded in life, this book rounded out some of my cultural awareness edges. It’s also opened me up to choice – choice when I die, choice when more of my loved ones die. I think I have to agree with the author in perhaps the most interesting/best way to dispose of my body: vultures. Vultures can clean the flesh off of bones within minutes. Your flesh goes back into the world and your bones are there to bury or crush without the need for cremation or embalming or any of that nonesense. I leave it up to my loved ones some day, though….
If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves
Interest in reading it? You can buy it on Amazon, here!
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