From Here to Eternity

Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

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Caitlin Doughty
  • London, England: 
    W. W. Norton & Company
    , October
     2017.
     272 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780393249897.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death is a work of marvelous morbidity. From death tourism in Indonesia, to body composting experiments in North Carolina, to the high-tech glowing Buddhas of Ruriden in Japan, Doughty goes above and beyond to introduce her readers to death rituals and experiences which are not the norm in the United States. 

As she bears witness to mummified bodies and describes the precision with which family members perform kotsuage ceremonies in Japan, Doughty traverses the intimate world of death with curiosity and respect. It is with precision that Doughty weaves funeral history into the meat of her travel stories. For example, her first chapter is a study of the only open-air pyre in America—and Doughty takes the time to explain the origins of cremation in America, as we understand it today (26-28). 

Furthermore, Doughty uses terminology with precision which is sure to explain the different death-phenomena that she experiences around the world. It is not unhelpful to search these terms so as to have a concrete image and the beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations of Landis Blair enhance Doughty’s descriptions. These depictions of the ñatitas, which Doughty encountered in Bolivia, are particularly delightful (198-199).

One of the shining aspects of Doughty’s writing and research is her ability to connect the diverse experiences of her global journey to the “typical” American death customs with which we are familiar. She does this adeptly, not only due to her knowledge of the history of death culture in the US, but also through her willingness to make human connections with all the individuals that guide her through her travels. 

In an especially touching chapter in which Doughty illustrates Mexico’s Días de los Muertos traditions, Doughty brings her friend Sarah’s story to light. Sarah grew up in a family of “self-hating Mexicans” who distanced themselves from any aspect of their Mexican heritage—including Días de los Muertos. When Sarah and her partner suffered the death of their child—as Sarah was six months pregnant—her son’s death drew Sarah back to her “death-engaged” Mexican heritage. The same year of her son’s death, Sarah and her partner decided to travel to Mexico for Días de los Muertos, where they found solace and “peace” amidst the openness of death that surrounded them (83-84, 88).

The story of Sarah, Doughty’s friend and traveling companion, illustrates the ways in which Doughty artfully showcases the humanity she witnesses among the death rituals and traditions that she observes. From Here to Eternity is a work that allows the reader to recognize that we begin to dispel the fear and shame that surrounds death—only—when we face the facets of reality that frighten us. 

Doughty ends her book with a challenge to Western culture as she boldly states that we do not leave space in Western culture for death or grief. She rightly explains the ways in which we have sanitized our culture to be death-free: the lack of empathy often found in hospitals, the death industry’s singular focus upon selling caskets, and our aversion to rituals—to any act that will allow us to feeland experience the vulnerability of our shared humanity (233-236). 

Through her exploration of death—across continents and cultures—Doughty gets to the heart of our shared humanity. The inevitable fact of our human existence is that, one day, we will all meet death. Doughty poignantly illustrates that each of us can make a choice when it comes to the reality of death: we can continue to take part in a death-denying culture, or we can face it head on—although perhaps not all of us will have the chance to meet a ñatita—and readily remove the shroud of secrecy which surrounds death in the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hannah D. Olson holds a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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

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