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From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

Review

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

What happens when we die? Is there an eternal self or soul? Do we face heaven, hell, moksha or nirvana? For millennia, religions and philosophies have attempted to answer these unanswerable metaphysical questions. But there are other questions to ask about death --- questions about the physical body and cultural traditions. Author and mortician Caitlin Doughty explores these worldly queries with humor, openness and respect in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. Traveling to diverse locales and bringing her critique about the history and traditions of the American funerary industry along with her, Doughty challenges readers to rethink ideas about death and nature.

"While there are no answers about the afterlife, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is totally satisfying. It’s a brisk and still meaty read, with a touch of darkness, more than a little science, and a lot of wisdom about the one thing we all have in common."

Doughty’s first stop is in Colorado with a visit to the Crestone cremation community. Here, she contrasts commercial cremation with the practices of the more ecologically sound and emotionally present rituals of Crestone. In Indonesia, Doughty finds traditions vastly different from those practices in much of the West. There she meets people who keep the mummified bodies of the deceased at home for years. The bodies are still cared for, spoken to, consulted and loved, staying physically part of the home and family, even feted on special occasions. The Torajan community that hold these traditions are thus provided a “meaningful way to stay connected with their dead.” It is a sharp contrast from the sterile, clinical and often very impersonal response to the handling of death and the dead in the U.S.

More mummies, as well as a whole holiday to celebrate the dead, are found in Mexico. In Bolivia, Doughty explores the beliefs surrounding the Ñatitas, mummified heads --- often dressed in hats and kept in glass cases --- that are consulted for special favors.

Not every journey brings Doughty into the realm of mummified corpses. Her trips to Japan and Spain are focused on creation and an examination of the distance often found between the living and the deceased as death, funeral, and burial or cremation rituals are so often given over to professionals. The professionals whose work she learns about in North Carolina are the scientists who work at a “body farm,” studying human remains to learn about crime scenes and new modes of speeding up the process of decomposition.

Doughty is a delightfully cheery, witty and ever so slightly sarcastic guide on this gruesome and fascinating journey. Her unabashed confrontation of death and decay, human mortality, and the needs of the living is smart and interesting, philosophical and tender. As both a guest at so many personal and emotional moments and as a professional mortician examining various methods with a clinical eye, she successfully strikes a balance in sharing opinions and facts. It does no harm to her narrative that she is sometimes accompanied by a bearded, tattooed friend dressed in a “purple velvet frock coat and top hat with an ermine skull attached to the brim.” Her conversational writing style and pop culture references create a light tone --- a nice way to deliver information about death and the things that happen to our bodies after we die. Black and white illustrations by Landis Blair give the book something special.

While there are no answers about the afterlife, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is totally satisfying. It’s a brisk and still meaty read, with a touch of darkness, more than a little science, and a lot of wisdom about the one thing we all have in common.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 13, 2017

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
by Caitlin Doughty

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Sociology
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393249891
  • ISBN-13: 9780393249897