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

Adults who are racked with death anxiety are not odd birds who have contracted some exotic disease, but men and women whose family and culture have failed to knit the proper protective clothing for them to withstand the icy chill of mortality.

Irvin Yalom, psychiatrist
From Here to Eternity

Book Info

Author: Caitlin Doughty

Published: 2018

Geographic Area: Worldwide (everywhere in the Thanatosphere)

Original Language: English

Synopsis

Caitlin Doughty, the owner of a funeral home and crematory in Los Angeles, travels the world to see how other cultures deal with death.

My Thoughts

First of all, shout-out to my sister Niki for getting me this book for my birthday!

From Here to Eternity belongs right next to Atlas Obscura on the bookshelf: they are travel books, but not the kind you’d expect.

Caitlin Doughty, quirky cremator and thoughtful thanotourist (thanos being Greek for “death”), posits an interesting thesis in this book. She believes that the modern, corporatized world of American funerals has in fact made death scarier. Not only does it widen the gulf (and thus the familiarity) between life and death, but it also keeps families and friends from being able to fully process their grief. Indeed, in my own time spent listening to podcasts, I’ve heard it brought up more than once that, prior to the rise of hospitals in the very late-19th century, people were typically born at home and people typically died at home. Death was such a part of life that the living, for lack of a better word, kind of got used to it.

Looking to explore this topic further, Doughty enlists the help of Paul, a friend of hers who seems to tread a filament-fine line between “eccentric” and “pretentious.” Nevertheless, he gets her in to see the ma’nene ceremony of rural Indonesia, where friends and family literally disinter the corpses of their loved ones to clean them off and change their clothes, even replenish their stock of cigarettes.

The real-life ma'nene ceremony, as described in From Here to Eternity
The real-life ma’nene ceremony
Photo courtesy of CultureColectiva.com

This is where the book morphs into a travel book. Doughty is clearly a well-traveled woman, visiting five countries and several American states over the course of the book. Her knowledge of burial traditions will lead you across a variety of other locations, adding some very personal nuance to foreign lands. You’ll tour high-tech Japanese catacombs and learn the history of the Indian towers of silence. You’ll also learn what not to do at rituals of this kind (never getting between the mourners and their deceased with your iPad, for starters).

Those concerned that all this death talk may weigh heavy on the page shouldn’t worry. Doughty writes of these morbid (to Americans) concepts with a quirky sense of humor. She even makes her book complete with two postscripted sections: “How to Be a Good Thanotourist” and “Fill-In Fun: Your Death Plan!”

From Here to Eternity

I liked From Here to Eternity because it was like reading two books in one. On the one hand, it was a fun travelogue, but on the other, it was a very thought-provoking piece. As an American, it made me stop and think: “Why do we need to pay $7,000 for a casket?” Why do they need to take the body of your loved one away so fast (note: apparently, they don’t)?” “Why is the state so strict about embalming and encasing your body with chemicals and concrete?” It made me ponder, laugh, and wonder all in the same chapter.

If you wish to purchase From Here to Eternity, you can use my Amazon link below. This my own affiliate link, and so I will be making a percentage off of every purchase made using this link.

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