Book Review: From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good DeathTitle: From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 248
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publication Date: 3rd October 2017
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Rating: ★★★★★

Fascinated by our pervasive terror of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty set out to discover how other cultures care for their dead. In rural Indonesia, she observes a man clean and dress his grandfather’s mummified body. Grandpa’s mummy has lived in the family home for two years, where the family has maintained a warm and respectful relationship. She meets Bolivian natitas (cigarette-smoking, wish-granting human skulls), and introduces us to a Japanese kotsuage, in which relatives use chopsticks to pluck their loved-ones’ bones from cremation ashes.

With curiosity and morbid humor, Doughty encounters vividly decomposed bodies and participates in compelling, powerful death practices almost entirely unknown in America. Featuring Gorey-esque illustrations by artist Landis Blair, From Here to Eternity introduces death-care innovators researching green burial and body composting, explores new spaces for mourning—including a glowing-Buddha columbarium in Japan and America’s only open-air pyre—and reveals unexpected new possibilities for our own death rituals.

Before reading her latest book, I was already a huge fan of Caitlin Doughty from her 2014 debut, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and her brilliant YouTube series, Ask A Mortician.  Her progressive views on the death industry, as well as her intelligence and wit, make her writing and videos captivating, and over the years she has developed quite the following.

From Here To Eternity follows Caitlin’s travels between cultures to explore the way different communities deal with death.  She travels to Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, North Carolina (to name a few), documenting her experiences and using her own knowledge to generate interesting discussions about their unique practices.

“No matter what it takes, the hard work begins for the West to haul our fear, shame, and grief surrounding death out into the disinfecting light of the sun.”

One thing becomes apparent very quickly: many American and English traditions surrounding death do nothing but epitomise just how frightened the Western world is of dying.  Since Caitlin’s first book opened my eyes to this, it is something I notice everywhere, however small.  “Anti-aging cream: look younger, feel happier!” (As if the very worst thing a human can be is anything other than immortally young?).  Death scares many of us, but are current practices fueling this rather than tackling it?  Has the increasing commercialisation of the industry made death more about money being exchanged, with less consideration afforded to the emotional healing process, of bringing communities together?  Certainly food for thought…

In Indonesia, Caitlin sees a very different experience of death.  She documents how the Torajan people care for their deceased family members, who believe that the body very much still encompasses the soul of their lost loved one.  They tend to the bodies over years, mummifying them and treating them as being very much still a part of the family.  It is something that I would have instantly dismissed as the stuff of nightmares, but through Caitlin’s eyes, I began to realise the benefits of such a practice – how dealing with the dead in this way seemed to somehow be a more positive and healing way of coping with loss.

“I have come to believe that the merits of a death custom are not based on mathematics (e.g., 36.7 percent a “barbarous act”), but on emotions, a belief in the unique nobility of one’s own culture. That is to say, we consider death rituals savage only when they don’t match our own.”

Once again, Caitlin has succeeded in completely moving and enlightening me with her words.  She has made me want to consider how England could readdress how it deals with and talks about death, and what I could do on a personal level to overcome those fears.  The very best non-fiction reads challenge your perception of the world, and From Here To Eternity certainly achieved that.

You can pick up your own copy of From Here To Eternity from The Book Depository.

If you’re ordering the book and having to wait for it to be delivered, then here’s a fascinating TED talk to tide you over:

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts on Caitlin’s progressive ideas?

Happy reading!

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