When I learned that Caitlin Doughty (author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and YouTube channel host extraordinaire) was writing a second book (From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death), I jumped on that bandwagon. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes was a breeze to read that provided a glimpse into the world of the crematory. With From Here to Eternity (let's call it FHTE from here on out), Doughty now takes a global look at death customs...and the result was pretty intriguing.
In case you are curious, here's the blurb from the back of the book:
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.
In FHTE we travel from Indonesia to Bolivia to Japan...and a few places in between...to learn about the various ways different cultures treat their dead and conduct their funerary rituals. This book was a fascinating glimpse into various traditions and cultures that handle their deceased loved ones in a manner that many Americans may find foreign.
FHTE was engrossing to read (just like her previous book) and educational without being too "stuffy". Doughty's personal worldview does come through very strongly as she does not agree with Christian practices superseding native culture/tradition when it comes to how the dead are handled. Her career bias also shines through as she does not hold to the "industry of death" that currently reigns supreme in America but would rather see a return to natural burial across the country.
I would have preferred to see less of a bias presented in the book as it seemed as though Doughty took a few opportunities to take an aside and present her own opinion on religion, feminism/patriarchy, and modern funeral practices. Whether or not I agree with her worldview, I think the book would have been better served to present the cultures' death traditions on their own without a running dialogue of her opinions about how Western religion and the patriarchy have destroyed death culture in various countries. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think there's a way to present that information academically for a publication, but I fear Doughty veered into the "opinions for a blog" territory (...kind of like I'm doing now?).
If you have any interest in death culture/traditions or in the mortuary world I would definitely recommend Caitlin Doughty's books. They are easy to read, entertaining, and provide a fascinating glimpse into a world that is often considered to be taboo.