From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty (With Spoilers?)

So, seeing this image on my computer definitely does not do this cover the justice it deserves. I actually bought this as a hardcover, because that’s what I do with all of the books that I read for the various book clubs that I’m in, and let me tell you: my husband and I came home late one night and I had this book propped up on the table next to my chair and when we walked in the house, the front porch light reflected off of the turquoise and gold accents and the book looked like it was lit up from the inside. I about shit my pants when I saw a glowing skull waiting for me in my living room – until I realized I was just looking at this awesome book cover.

This was my pick for my Reading Between the Wines book club for the month of August. I don’t know why I decided to subject my friends to the various death practices that Caitlin (I decided after reading this that we were meant to be best friends and are therefore on a first name basis) researched, but being the good friends that they are, they were there for it. Even after sending them some pictures of dead bodies that I located on Instagram hashtags while I was reading at 5:00am. Because that’s what you do with friends, right?

Because this is a nonfiction book, do spoilers still exist? I mean, I’m assuming that people who pick up this book did so (do so) because they want to know about the different death practices around the world – so is me talking about it going to ruin that for them? If it will, then read no further, because after I talk about what I liked about the book itself, I’m going to reflect on the different practices that Doughty discusses and how I felt about them. This book just SCREAMS for some discussion.

As far as the writing style, Caitlin and I could be twinsies. Her wit is the exact same as mine, which means that I really connected with her writing style. With her own sarcastic thoughts/comments often appearing in parentheticals as well as hash-tagging some of her wit, I enjoyed reading this book immensely. It’s easy to read and filled with amusing little anecdotes. There were a few times where the anecdotes seemed to go off on a tangent, but my brain works the same exact way so I was totally here for it. Her delivery makes for an easy read of what could be considered difficult subject matter. And while she does deliver the results of her visits in a detached, clinical way, she also isn’t afraid to express her own opinions about what she witnessed, even if it reinforces the main message of her book.

So the three practices that made me think the most:

  1. The Torajans on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi

This is the hook that gets you so embedded in to this book that you just can’t look away. We learn that the Torajans don’t see their dead as….well…..dead, but rather they believe that they are in a very deep sleep. They can still hear you and feel you and they know that you’re there, they just don’t respond. The deceased are eventually buried in tombs – once the family has a worthy sacrifice. But then, during an event called Ma’nene they family visits the tombs, opens them, clean the corpse and then redress the corpse. Before putting the corpse back to rest, many of the family members take photos with their departed loved ones so that they can remember them fondly until the next Ma’nene. So what do the Torajans do during the time between their relative falling “asleep” and the time they perform the burial ritual? They keep them in their house, some even going so far as to stand them up each morning and dress them for the day and tucking them in at night.

I know. The shock value is enough to keep you reading. Especially considering the book starts out with the gentle telling of Crestone (which I will discuss more of below). But after spending days in shock over this practice and discussing it at length with my husband (he totally appreciates you for that Caitlin, btw) I realized that, this is what the author’s intent was. Why should I be shocked and disturbed by something that is totally normal to the Torajans? Can you imagine the freedom that comes with being comfortable around dead bodies? Being able to see them as human and not just as a hazardous material? I can’t. And that makes me a little sad.

2. Crestone End of Life Project – Open Air Cremation

Crestone’s End of Life Project is essentially an open air pyre, where residents of the town (and residents only) can choose to be cremated. While it’s not quite the Viking burial that I was expecting (no flaming arrows being shot at a floating raft housing the body), the process is actually quite meaningful. The End of Life project seeks to involve the family members and the the community in the sending off of the person to the next realm. The cremation that Doughty witnessed involved quite a few members of decedent’s family and quite a few friends all joining in a circle and holding hands in the beginning, followed by story swapping during the burning of the body. And while the process does take a long time, considering heat escapes into the air, there is something so beautiful about the thought that your soul (if you believe in that kind of thing) escapes in to the open air in such a beautiful place after you cease to exist on this planet. I think if I had to choose a way from this book to be sent off to the the Underworld (cuz we all know I’m not making it upstairs), it would be this one.

3. Body Composting

This would be my runner up. If you can’t burn me outside in the mountains, set me on a hill outside and let my remains do some good in my surrounding environment. I always loved the idea of my ashes being put in one of those tree pod things so that essentially my remains would turn in to a tree, which I thought was a nice way to memorialize my life; then Caitlin pointed out how once you’re cremated, any value that your remains had that could potentially contribute to new life, is gone. So that was kind of a slap in the face.

But it’s a valid point: do I want a tree to grow around my ashes (really in spite of them) or do I want my decomposing body to contribute to the soil and the land around me? Definitely the second one. And while I get that the FOREST lab in North Carolina is just a lab and is geared towards more than just end-of-life stuff, those bodies that were used specifically for composting sounded like they received a super peaceful experience, though them being sniffed by cadaver dogs wasn’t really touched on… Imagine what an end-of-life service specifically dedicated to body composting could accomplish. Either way, my body being left on a hill under a tree to decompose on it’s own sounds much better to me than being buried 6 feet under the earth (I’ve always been afraid of the dark). And in this instance, my husband wouldn’t have to worry about ensuring my grave had one of those zombie bells just in case I was buried alive.

Overall, this book did what Doughty wanted it to do. It certainly made me question the way the very advanced Western World treats their dead. And while I know I certainly am too westernized to accept sleeping in a bed with my dead relatives, I can also see how being raised in that manner would make me a lot more comfortable with death than I am now. Death is scary (at least to me). But in this book, death became less scary and way more interesting than I ever though it could be. For that, Caitlin gets my thanks and this book gets my recommendation:

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And after reading this book, my trademark flames remind me of a fire burning in a crematory… oh well.

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