Sent to me by W&N in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 25/01/18
Publisher: W&N (Orion)
Format: Hardback, 272pp
Summed up in a word: Farewell
Reading a book centred around death could be regarded as slightly morose but I couldn’t resist picking up From Here To Eternity. Caitlin Doughty’s fascinating approach to dealing with the dead is a genuine and thoughtful experience that I can’t recommend enough to all readers. Doughty has travelled the world to study the perfect goodbye and the vast and unforgettable practices she uncovers helps to inspire us to drop the shroud of discomfort surrounding the deceased and their final (or not so final) goodbye. I was astounded by other cultures more heartfelt and direct handling of their dead loved ones and it was a cathartic experience to think out such a natural but taboo part of life. Full review below.
As a practising mortician, Caitlin Doughty has long been fascinated by our pervasive terror of dead bodies. In From Here to Eternity she sets out in search of cultures unburdened by such fears. In rural Indonesia, she observes a man clean and dress his grandfather’s mummified body. She meets Bolivian ñatitas (cigarette-smoking, wish-granting human skulls), and discovers the Japanese ritual of kotsuage, in which relatives use chopsticks to pluck their loved-ones’ bones from cremation ashes.
With curiosity and morbid humour, Doughty introduces us to inspiring death-care innovators, participates in powerful death practices almost entirely unknown in the West and explores new spaces for mourning – including a futuristic glowing-Buddha columbarium in Japan, a candlelit Mexican cemetery, and America’s only open-air pyre. In doing so she expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with ‘dignity’ and reveals unexpected possibilities for our own death rituals.
‘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 pocket-books and our ability to mourn at risk.’ Caitlin Doughty p6
Death is such a prominent occurrence in our lives and yet it has become almost taboo to deal with it personally. Instead we pass responsibility over to funeral homes and death-care advisers and pay them to deal with our deceased. We keep grief at arms length and in doing so miss a key opportunity for closure. Caitlin Doughty has dedicated her career as an alternative mortician to reconnecting people with more natural ways of saying farwell to their loved ones. From Here To Eternity is a culmination of her efforts in this field and it is a truly remarkable read.
‘In America, where I live, death has been big business since the turn of the twentieth century. A century has proven the perfect amount of time for its citizens to forget what funerals once were: family – and community-run affairs. In the nineteenth century no one would have questioned Josephine’s daughter preparing her mother’s body – it would have seemed strange if she didn’t.’ Caitlin Doughty p3
Caitlin has travelled the world in search for a perfect way to send off our dearly departed in a meaningful way that is good for our souls and healthy for our planet. Searching for answers in North/South America, Asia and Europe, Caitlin experiences many different funerals, burials, cremations and rituals all with the sole purpose of connected with the dead. Her pure amazement and deep appreciation of each practice really showed and it was inspirational. Each culture got an equal say in the text and CD gives us first hand insights into a wide variety of ancient and modern rituals and funerals. From the funeral pyres of Colorado and the ultra-green human compost projects to the good luck of South American Ñatitas to the cremation efficient Japan. Every country has their own personal way to honour the dead but some cultures have lost the essence of what handling the bodies of our loved ones really means.
‘We need to reform our funeral industries in the West introducing new practices that aren’t so profit-orientated, and that do more to include the family. But we cannot begin to reform – or even question! – our death systems when we act like little Jean de Brébeufs, falsely convinced we have it right while all these “other people” are disrespectful and barbarous.’ Caitlin Doughty p14
I was captivated by From Here To Eternity as I have no experience with death up to this point in my life. This book allowed me to open up my mind to all the opportunities and dynamics of getting through the death of a loved one. My favourite aspect of this book has to be the range and efficiency of CD’s writing. She is so genuine, inquisitive and passionate when talking about her work and that fact that she wants her research to go well for the improvement of our practices makes the book feel hugely influential. CD is trying to show the world that there is no one true way to treat the dead but there are ways we can be more involved in our grief and mourning.
CD’s travels are impressive and far reaching. We are at her side all the way through her experiences and the illustrations (www.landisblair.com/from-here-to-eternity/) that accompany the text are vivid and memorable enough to help us connect with CD’s journey. I couldn’t believe some of the lengths that people go to honour the dead. From the Indonesians living with their dead and Mexico’s Dias De Los Muertos to how Buddhist temples handle the of remains of dead in a way that encompasses ancient and modern practices. Each story and paints an individual and worldly view on how important it is to give a proper and emotional send-off. I also enjoyed the rich history of cremations, rituals and reservations/controversies about the handling the deceased.
FHTE is comprehensive without going overboard on the details. Despite the deep subject it is actually a breezy read that is easy to digest. Of course there are parts that can move to tears, it did for me, and CD is honourable and respectful when approaching the more difficult stories surrounding the dead. CD also covers the economical, moral and religious aspects of funerals and death-care. Japan was the most surprising insight for me and I was blown away by their efficient yet moving dealings with death. Caitlin Doughty knows about the business and she easily connects and understands other people’s ways. She is trying to break the boundaries on death avoidance and I appreciate her efforts.
From Here To Eternity is a true revelation and I couldn’t recommend it enough. I know what you are thinking… Urrrgh… Death! No thanks! I still maintain that this is a must read for 2018. CD’s dedication is admirable and her writing is passionate and both humorous and emotional at times. There should probably be a sign on the front of this book about graphic detail in both the descriptive writing and the illustrations as there are times where I was stopped in my tracks with the whole TMI scenario (I am talking bull sacrifices etc). That said, CD provides us with a no holds barred peek behind the curtain surrounding death and mortality. It is shocking but immensely necessary for our modern culture. Pick up From Here To Eternity and expand your mind on one of most natural parts of being a human being.
About Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii before gaining a degree in Medieval History from the University of Chicago. She currently lives in Los Angeles where she owns an alternative funeral home, Undertaking LA. She is the creator of the ‘Ask a Mortician’ web series, the founder of the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death and co-founder of Death Salon. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.