Book Review: From Here to Eternity
CW: death, funerals, corpses
Modern western culture has a weird attitude toward death. It's a combination of obsession and repulsion, kind of like the entire culture is rubbernecking at a grisly traffic accident. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death explores some of how we got here, but its focus is more on how we can extricate ourselves from this strange and unhealthy relationship with the one aspect of life that no one can escape.
The author, Caitlin Doughty, can legitimately claim to be an expert: She's a mortician. In this book, she travels to faraway (Indonesia, Bolivia) and nearby (Colorado, California) places to explore how different cultures and subcultures deal with death, dead bodies, funeral rites, and our relationship with the dead.
Though I do remember one of my great-grandparents being placed in her coffin in the family's front room for the viewing/wake before the funeral when I was a small child, for the most part I've spent my life with the sanitized American version of death: The person dies in the hospital, the body is prepared by professionals including embalming and heavy makeup so it looks untouched by death, and the family leaves the cemetery before the coffin is lowered into the grave. You can stay nice and detached during a process like that. It may be less sorrowful, but I think it also makes it harder to process the grieving.
Doughty agrees. In the book, she explores both traditional funeral practices and new contemporary ones that aim to give the living a greater role in caring for the deceased during the funeral process. She also shares some traditions that involve caring for the dead beyond the funeral, including not just their spirits but also their (mummified) bodies. I didn't find any of her descriptions particularly shocking, but the book as a whole served to underscore just how removed most Americans are from dealing with the material aspects of having a family member die.
Her writing style is honest, witty, and at times self-deprecating. I felt like I was listening to a friend chat rather than reading a book about anthropological, sociocultural, and philosophical issues (which is what the book really is - it's just also really readable).
It's a lot of food for thought. Ain't none of us getting any younger.