Caitlin Doughty has done it again! She produced a knock out book that I took way too long to read. I blogged about her first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, here. In that blog I confessed my narrow range of interest (mostly death and dying and spirituality stuff) and my slow reading. Her “new” book came out in 2017 and I just finished it yesterday. No matter… if you haven’t read it yet, it is new to you.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death is a travelogue around the world to find ways of honoring the dead to help the bereaved hold their grief. As with her first book, this one comes with a WARNING: there are graphic descriptions of dead bodies and of what happens to these bodies after death. I personally was not offended by this and do feel the descriptions are an essential part of her narrative.
Doughty is a mortician, owner of a nonprofit funeral home, Undertaking L.A., and a leader in the Death Positive movement. The movement seeks to change the way we do death and dying in Western culture. We tend to hide death, remove it from view, and make it unnatural. Our hospitals and funeral homes can be the greatest obstacles to a more positive view of death.
One of the common characteristics of all the unusual death and funeral practices described in the book is the openness of grief—there is no shame in a public expression of grief for years after a death. Families in Indonesia may keep the mummified body of a relative in their homes for months or years. In Bolivia, human skulls are decorated and given a prominent place in dwellings. In Colorado, a whole community turns out to witness the open-air cremation of one of their own. In the West we want people to “get over their grieving,” “to find closure,” to “move on.” The truth is, we never stop grieving. Other cultures have established rituals around death that bring grief into the light.
Doughty ends her book, “No matter what it takes, the hard work begins for the West to haul our fear, shame, and grief surrounding death out into the disinfecting light of the sun.” What is needed is “holding the space” for the dying person and their family. “To hold the space is to create a ring of safety around the family and friends of the dead, providing a place where they can grieve openly and honestly, without fear of being judged.”