From Here to Eternity
Written by Caitlin Doughty
Review by Jarad Johnson
Disclaimer: Today, Jarad tackles the book, From Here to Eternity, a discussion of death and funeral practices around the world. Please be warned that this may be disturbing to some readers, so choose to read accordingly.
In this book, Caitlin explores the different death rituals around the world, and attempts to understand the Western world’s fear of death. That is not only a huge task, but a controversial one. People tend to think that being interested in death is morbid or gross. To me, that’s not exactly the healthiest attitude because news flash: everyone, and I mean everyone, is going to die, and the sooner you’re at peace with that, the better off you’ll be. Death is a part of life, and many people’s attempts to distance themselves from that (or sometimes to live in outright denial of that fact) has always confused me. I am not afraid to die, not only because it’s futile to do so, but because I don’t want to spend my life worrying about my eventual death. Don’t let death ruin your life. More than it has to, of course.
That doesn’t mean that we have to be ok with someone dying or that you should wish death on someone, it just means that we have to stop being afraid to think about death, or to have conversations about it. That means knowing your options when it comes to funerals or cremation, filling out an advanced directive and/or a will, and telling your loved ones about it. It’s cruel to lose someone you love, but it seems crueler to leave them floundering in the dark in an already emotionally taxing situation, especially when you could’ve done something about it.
Every culture disposes of their dead differently. And while Caitlin explores rituals from all over the world, I’d like to talk about the ones that stood out to me. Firstly, body composting (because who wouldn’t want to fertilize a garden?). It’s a new method of body disposition being explored at a place called FOREST (the Forensic Osteology Research Station, located in North Carolina) with mixed results. They haven’t quite got the formula right to completely compost a body, at least not yet. This is particularly interesting to me because of the toll that traditional burial and cremation take on the environment. Embalming fluids eventually leak into the ground (over 800,000 gallons per year) and fire-based cremation uses a lot of natural gas. With the environment being in an already bad state, it seems like people should have options that don’t contribute to that.
Secondly, Tibetan Sky Burial. This is one of the most interesting death practices in the book, because in spite of its name, there is no ground burial involved. Instead, the corpse is dismembered and fed to giant vultures, in keeping with the beliefs and traditions of that culture. Interestingly, the place where this is common in Tibet is running out of vultures to consume the bodies, because of a certain medicine given to the cows there. When the cows are eaten by the vultures, this medicine (something similar to Advil) causes the vultures kidneys to fail. This has caused the vulture population to decline significantly.
Thirdly, open air funeral pyres in Colorado. This one stands out because, to me, it doesn’t seem like it should be so difficult to do. It’s pretty similar to traditional cremation; even so, this particular open-air pyre is the only one of its kind in U.S. I hope that changes soon, because this type of funeral seems to provide a dramatic emotional release for mourners, to mark the passing of life to the other side with a doorway of fire.
Finally, natural burial, my personal favorite. This is where a body, un-embalmed and wrapped in a shroud, is placed in the earth without a casket (or an eco-friendly casket). I like this option the best because the environment is very important to me, and I try to do whatever I can to minimize my impact on it. I believe we are stewards of the earth, not owners of it, so a natural burial seems right for me. Also, the way we do funerals in this country, i.e. the embalming, the heavy duty (not to mention expensive) caskets, all seems very unnecessary.
Overall, this book was fascinating. I love learning about different cultures, and just like there are many distinct cultures across the world, they all also have their own way of disposing of their dead. That’s important to remember, and not to treat as some sort of macabre spectacle. I also watch Caitlin’s YouTube channel, Ask A Mortician, so I wasn’t really shocked by anything (like composting bodies or giant vultures eating your corpse) in this book and I don’t think that should really shock anyone, because it isn’t shocking, it’s just different than how we usually do it. I would recommend that everyone read the book, because I truly believe that we as a culture need to stop being afraid of death and recognize it as a natural part of life.
Whether you want to be buried naturally, have vultures eat you, or even have a traditional burial, you should be able to be buried according to your own wishes. Those of us left should take care to observe the great divide, properly acknowledging the soul that moved among us. We should know that there are alternatives to the traditional burial, even though sometimes it seems like we have no choice in the matter. The passing from this life to the other side, whether that be a conscious afterlife, the quantum fields, or eternal slumber, should be marked by an event greater than the fearful, confusing quandary we have set for ourselves. Let us mark every death with memories of life and an appropriate sendoff into whatever is next.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!