Wednesday, 24 October 2018

From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death - Caitlin Doughty (Orion Books £8.99)

On her website Caitlin Doughty describes herself as a “mortician, activist, and funeral industry rabble-rouser”.  She runs her own non profit funeral business, Undertaking LA, and is the founder of the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death whose primary tenet is “hiding death and dying behind closed doors does more harm than good to our society.” Her YouTube series Ask a Mortician has clocked up 186 episodes and 57,000,000 views since 2011 and she has published two books, both of which cleverly recycle well known titles. The first, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (and other lessons from the Crematorium)’ (or Crematory if you read an American edition) was a breezy and highly entertaining account of her initiation into the Californian funeral business at Westwind Cremation & Burial in San Francisco. Her second book ‘From Here to Eternity; Travelling the World to Find the Good Death’ in which she investigates global funeral customs is as engaging as her debut. 

Caitlin is deeply disenchanted with the modern American funeral profession, its obsession with embalming and its capitalisation of death; “In America... death has been big business since the turn of the twentieth century. A century has proved 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 a wife washing and dressing the body of her husband or a father carrying his son to the grave in a homemade coffin. In an impressively short time, America’s funeral industry has become more expensive, more corporate, and more bureaucratic than any other funeral industry on earth. If we can be called best at anything, it would be at keeping our grieving families separated from their dead.” Caitlin’s particular mission, in the book, is to scour the world for meaningful funeral customs, to show Americans (and Europeans, arguably we aren’t far behind the States in our denial of mortality) how to reconnect with death. Whether any of the fascinating customs she uncovers could ever be coaxed into taking root in WASP America or skeptical Britain is debatable but as the spread of impromptu roadside memorials has shown in recent years, both countries are quite capable of suddenly adopting alien traditions when the fancy takes them.   

With a round the world airline ticket takes herself off to Mexico, Bolivia, Spain, Indonesia, and Japan before ending her trip where she started, at home in California, taking a 6 week corpse client out to its final resting place in the Joshua Tree Memorial Park in the Mojave desert. Her first stop on her world tour is also just a stone’s throw away from her LA base, in Crestone, Colorado witnessing a cremation on an  open air funeral pyre for a 75 year old lady called Laura who was found dead on her kitchen floor after spending the previous night dancing ‘with abandon  at a local music festival.’ Laura’s family decided at the last minute that her horse Bebe was not allowed to attend the ceremony.  For her trip to the Toraja region of Sulawesi in Indonesia Caitlin accompanies Dr Paul Koudounaris , the eccentric author of sumptuous coffee table books including  ‘The Empire of Death; A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses’, who dresses like a cross between Beau Brummel and Dr John the Night Tripper. The florid Koudounaris proves to be much less exotic to the locals than the pallid mortician with the Bettie Page hair cut. The Torajan’s famously keep their dead at home, for months, even years, before arranging a funeral. The corpses, preserved with liberal doses of formalin, are cared for as though they are sick, offered food, alcohol and cigarettes and are regularly washed and changed. In Japan she checks out a lastel, a last hotel where families spend their last night before funeral with the body of the deceased and witnesses the ritual of kotsuage;  relatives of the cremated are given white gloves and chopsticks to remove any remaining bones from the ash and put them in an urn (in the West unburnt bones are pulverised in a cremulator so that all that remains of the deceased is literally dust and ashes).  Naturally she visits Mexico for the Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead and Bolivia for Fiesta de las Ñatitas, the festival of the skulls.

From Here to Eternity is thoroughly entertaining, and Caitlin Doughty an appealing guide to the worlds funereal mores. It is difficult to argue with any of her views about the necessity of accepting our mortality, of the importance of funeral customs, grieving and physical connection with the dead or her criticisms of modern funeral practice. For someone so obsessed with death she displays not a hint of morbidity and at times I find her vivacity, relative youth and sheer wholesomeness slightly disconcerting in someone dealing with such gothic subject matter.  Her quirky California girl persona is probably what lets her get away with openly discussing such recondite subject matter as decomposition and necrophilia on YouTube; the last thing anyone could describe her as is ‘creepy’.  From Here to Eternity is definitely recommended reading.

P.S. The book is also excellently illustrated by Blair Landis. I was particularly thrilled to see an illustration of Thomas Willson’s Metropolitan Sepulchre but deeply disappointed not to be able to find it on-line so that I could share it with you.    

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