Best for: Anyone interested in death and mourning rituals from around the world.
In a nutshell: Author and funeral home owner Caitlin Doughty follows up her bestseller “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” with a look at different funeral and mourning rituals in an attempt to get those in some parts of the West who may be in denial about death to think about it differently.
Line that sticks with me: I’m going to cheat here and offer two:
1. “Cailin, can you smile a little, you look so dour.” “This is a human head. I don’t need pictures of me grinning with a severed human head.”
2. It’s a lovely thought, and a tree may grow from the soil provided, but after the 1,800 degree cremation process, the remaining bones are reduced to inorganic, basic carbon.”
Why I chose it: I love her first book and have since attended the Death Salon that her organization hosted in Seattle. She’s delightful in person, and her personality really comes through in her writing.
Review: This is one of those books that I didn’t want to put down. I started it late last night, and read almost a third of it before forcing myself to go to sleep. I then read it at the gym, on my walk to get errands, and finally finished it off while eating lunch.
Ms. Doughty is interested in helping those of us who might be living in a state of denial around death come to terms with the reality that everybody dies. Some folks are more privileged in this way than in others; people who have either personally experienced loss or have seen death in their community may have an all-too-familiar relationship with the concept of death, while others have only experienced death as part of the end of a very long life of a beloved great grandparent.
But, as we all know, we will all die. If you watch the Good Place, the most recent episode (”Existential Crisis”) shows what can happen when this concept first solidifies in a person’s mind. But in many cultures around the world, death is a part of life, and Ms. Doughty travels to learn more about these practices. Like the rituals of those who live in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and participate in the Torajan funeral, where individuals are removed from their ‘resting place’ by family members and cleaned and redressed on a regular basis. Or in La Paz, where ñatitas (human skulls) are displayed in some homes where individuals can come and make offerings to receive assistance in areas of their lives.
Back in the U.S., Ms. Doughty also looks at some alternatives to the traditional US cremation or burial, such as open-air funeral-pyre-style cremation, or recomposition (e.g., composting human remains).
As I said, I found this to be a fascinating read. Ms. Doughty is extremely respectful as she learns about other cultures – she isn’t there as a tourist, or as someone interesting in making a judgment. She is genuinely interested in learning from those who do it better than we do, in an attempt to figure out how to improve what’s going on at home.