CAITLIN DOUGHTY DISCUSSES HER BOOK FROM HERE TO ETERNITYCAITLIN DOUGHTY DISCUSSES HER BOOK FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

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From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death (W.W. Norton)

In From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, mortician Caitlin Doughty explores the world’s funeral traditions—from robotic graves in Japan to an Indonesian village where families live with the bodies of their dead for months, even years, prior to the funeral. Following up on her New York Times best-selling book SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES, the author argues that in modern America, funerals have become procedural and impersonal, meant to sanitize and distance the survivors’ from confrontation with mortality—all in the name of profit and “dignity.” The result is a culture pervaded by death anxieties and bereft of traditions that would help people make sense of their own mortal ends. Doughty advocates for alternative rituals designed to save us from the funeral-industrial complex.

In her travels, Doughty encounters funeral traditions that, to our eyes, may appear both beautiful and appalling. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus tells a story about two nations with very different perspectives on death: the Greeks and the Callatians. The Greeks cremate their dead and are repulsed by cannibalism, while the Callatians consume their dead and are repulsed by cremation. Herodotus’s lesson remains true to this day: the funeral traditions of other cultures almost always strike the outsider as barbaric.

Doughty, however, goes beyond ghoulish spectacle to ask how different cultures benefit from their unique funeral traditions and to question how our own culture might learn from them. Readers travel with Doughty as she learns about, and even participates in:

    The Japanese tradition of kotsuage, the ritual removal of large bone fragments from cremated ashes by family members using chopsticks A nonprofit mobile funeral pyre operation in Colorado that dodged local ordinances to revive a funeral tradition that dates back to prehistory A museum in Guanajuato, Mexico, for the mummies of disinterred corpses whose relatives could not pay the cemetery’s fee for “perpetual” interment; the museum includes a section for Angelitos, dead children whose bodies were believed to connect survivors to favored souls who could advocate for the living in Heaven An American research effort aimed at composting the dead and returning the body to its natural position in the cycle of life, death, and renewal A Bolivian woman’s efforts to collect and care for ñatitas, preserved human skulls that are treated like community advisors and are alleged to grant wishes; the skulls are at the center of conflicts between traditional beliefs and Roman Catholic teachings and, occasionally, enjoy smoking a cigarette

In her encounters with these funeral rites and traditions, Doughty explores the profound value they hold for the community. From Here To Eternity is an eye-opening exploration of the many different, and often surprising, ways humanity embraces the inescapable fact of death, filled with vivid and sometimes shocking details about how diverse cultures send off their dead.

But Doughty’s tour of the borderlands between the living and the dead is never simply morbid. As uncanny and surreal as some traditions may initially appear, when Doughty contrasts them to the vapid and emotionally sterile experiences promoted by America’s funeral industry, the depth and value of these ritualized customs is revealed. In a voice that is sympathetic, endlessly curious, and often engagingly humorous, Doughty advocates for a more humane and involved approach to mourning rituals. With lively illustrations by Landis Blair—whose style is a perfect match for Doughty’s humane and insightful prose—From Here To Eternity is a book about death for the living, and the importance of the rituals that help us understand how a meaningful end can enrich our sense of what it means to be alive.

Mortician Caitlin Doughty—host and creator of “Ask a Mortician” and the New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes—founded the Order of the Good Death. She lives in Los Angeles, where she runs the nonprofit funeral home Undertaking LA.

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