It’s been a while since I read a good death book! You may recall that Caitlin Doughty’s previous book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematorium ended up being one of my favourite books of 2017. I’d finished that book completely blown away, and full of thoughts and opinions about how death is treated in Western civilisations. I have to admit that I was slightly less excited for From Here to Eternity, expecting merely a non-fiction look at death rituals around the world. That’s what the book is, obviously, but I ended up with a whole different set of questions and thoughts than the last time around.
Summary: 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.
Caitlin Doughty has moved on from discussing her experiences of various roles in the funeral industry. The theme of her previous book was that funerals in the West, particularly in the US, have become unnecessarily commercialised and we have become sadly distanced from death, unable and unwilling to discuss it. This book takes us to Bolivia, Mexico, Japan, Tibet and other countries to look at how they say goodbye to their deceased relatives.
What I particularly appreciated about this book was that Ms Doughty actually travelled to these places. She packed a bag and jumped on a plane; she didn’t just pull together a reference book from sitting at home behind her keyboard, occasionally making a phone call to a museum. This means that the book is not only full of the author’s asides and opinions, but her actual experiences, such as almost forgetting to bring a sacrificial pig to a ceremony in Bolivia (which is apparently the height of rudeness). It means that this isn’t a dusty, dry non-fiction – it’s lively and entertaining, and fairly humorous at times.
It contains some quite macabre illustrations, which I liked. They do suit the quirky yet informative tone of the book, and they did help to illustrate the appearance of a particular, pyre for example. That said, I think I would have preferred some photographs as I kept having to pick up my phone to google the imagery. She talks about a wall of glowing LED buddhas in Tokyo, an indoor graveyard with revolving tombstones and the ñatitas of Bolivia, and naturally I wanted to see what these things really looked like, rather than just having them described. Perhaps that’s just me.
As I was reading From Here to Eternity, I was aware that I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I had Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I think that’s because, as much as I loved Caitlin’s personal observations, there’s no getting around the fact that Tibetan monks don’t really apply to you. It’s interesting, yes, but it didn’t open my eyes in the way the previous book had. Or so I thought. At the very end, the author discusses what she wants for her post-life care, and what she wants for her mother. That’s what struck me. I don’t want to pack my mother off to a conference room-style crematorium in a wooden box, having never laid lies on her. It’s not personal or affectionate, and it feels quite… dismissive, almost. I’ve realised that I don’t want to be disposed of in that way either.
This is obviously not a neutral book and there is clearly A Point To Be Made. It’s quite subtle, however. It’s not until you compare the traditions of other countries with our own that you really realise how lacking in personality our own are. This isn’t really emphasised until the very end of the book, when Caitlin mentions that she will never be allowed to type of burial she truly wants for herself, as it’s just not done in the United States. Then I started questioning everything I thought I knew, and here we are again.
I’d recommend From Here to Eternity as a sort of lighter touch than Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. It’s not as gory or as analytical, but it’s still a very interesting look at burial rites around the world. It’s a good place to start if you’re not entirely convinced that such books are for you.
Read my review of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematorium here.