From Here to Eternity – Caitlin Doughty

You might be wondering at my absence, blog-friend. Wonder no longer! I finished the second draft of my book and took break from the travel writing and reading world. I also ordered some prints from illustrator Jenna Barton as a reward, which is pretty bitching.

This week book is undertaker Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. It’s a great title, at least in my estimation.

One of my good friends recommended this book to me a year ago, so I put it on my TBR list and forgot about it completely (my TBR list is reaching 900+). She loves Doughty, loves her Youtube videos, loves her approach to death and the business of death.

Reading this book, I see why. Doughty is practical and charming, is concerned about doing death “right,” and has a great sense of humor (as well as my habit of parenthetical asides). Her thoughts, her journeys, her friends–all very interesting. Seeing how a few cultures around the world approach death, the spectrum that that entails, is fascinating.

Also, the cover design (above), is one of my favorites.

My nitpicks (because there are always nitpicks, let’s face it):

The Smithsonian named this book one of the ten best travel books of 2017. This is not a travel book. This is a book about death where travel occurs. It’s a good book, but when I think of all the other books that came out in 2017 where travel occurred and was the focus of the book, I get a bit miffed (at The Smithsonian, not Doughty).

As one of those annoyingly oversized paperbacks (read: not a trade paperback), this book retails at $15.95. The book is 272 pages long, but from page 237 onwards it’s just supplementals. It took me about three hours to read this book. I found that odd, so did a basic word count estimate. Counting in the chapter spacing, the space the excellent illustrations took up, I’m guessing this book is about 46,000 words long. Less than a novella. Also, if I had paid full retail (I think I ordered it off Amazon), that means I was paying (with tax, etc) basically $5.80 per hour to read this book.

Again, this has nothing to do with Doughty. It’s just a publishing peeve of mine, especially of late when I go to a bookstore to grab a sci-fi or horror novel and the same book I would have purchased for $7 or $9 four years ago is now $16-19 because it’s in a larger format. Which I don’t physically enjoy. So I’m paying twice as much for exactly the same story in a format that I don’t want.

For From Here to Eternity, Doughty’s fine, as I said above. The writing is light, more summary than intense description most times, often distanced, and an easy read. She’s not the best writer on a technical level, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not the type of book this is and she’s not a professional writer. She’s a professional undertaker who happens to write books sometimes.

I learned quite a bit from this book. It helped me process somethings I’d been sitting on for who knows how many years. The information she presented was wonderful, as was her approach. Would I use this book as an example of an excellent travel book? No. Would I point people who are having problems dealing with death/the death industry towards it? Totally.

Some quotes for your deadly gaze:

“After a few minutes the whirlwinds dispersed, and glowing red flames danced in their place. The fire gathered strength, shooting up six feet high. The mourners, all 130 of them, ringed the pyre in silence. The only sound was the pop of flaming wood, as if one by one Laura’s memories were diffusing into the ether.”

“His cremation was scheduled for December, six months after his death. In the interim his corpse was injected with arsenic, and when arsenic was deemed to weak to prevent rot, his organs were pulled from his body and his skin was covered with clay and carbolic acid by a local undertaker. On the train journey from New York to Pennsylvania (where he would be cremated), his mummified corpse briefly went missing in the baggage car, launching what historian Stephen Prothero called ‘a macabre game of hide-and-seek.'”

“Our driver barreled the SUV up winding two-lane roads, dodging and swerving around mopeds and trucks in a never-ending game of automobile chicken. Not speaking his language, I finally had to act out the universal symbol for ‘Seriously, bro, I’m going to vomit.'”

“When we did the math, I owed Paul $666 for the pig, the hotel, and Agus’s services as a guide. My 2015 tax return had a write-off for a $666 sacrificial pig.”

“Walking into the cemetery on the evening of November 1 was nothing short of revelatory. The cemetery glowed with the light of tens of thousands of candles, which the families plan and save all year to provide for their returning dead. A small boy worked diligently at his grandmother’s grave, relighting or replacing any of the hundreds of candles that had been snuffed out. The candles’ radiance mixed with the smell of marigolds and incense, creating a golden haze drifting among the graves.”

“The bear burials (bearials, if you will) acted as practice for the undergraduates. After a bear decays down to bone, the students set up a systematic grid and collect the bones to bring back to the lab for examination. Successfully processing a bear permits a student to work on the human beings, located not in the parking area (I was pleased to discover) but in a 58-by-58-foot pen up the hill, fenced in with razor wire to keep out the curious, which include coyotes, bears, and drunk college students.”

“When deathcare became an industry in the early twentieth century, there was a seismic shift in who was responsible for the dead. Caring for the corpse went from visceral, primeval work performed by women to a ‘profession,’ an ‘art,’ and even a ‘science,’ performed by well-paid men. The corpse, with all its physical and emotional messiness, was taken from women. It was made neat and clean and placed in its casket on a pedestal, always just out of our grasp.”

“Paul Koudounaris was wearing a large fuzzy hat made from a coyote pelt, with the ears still attached. The hat, worn in combination with the gold beads that hung from his pointy black beard, made him look like Genghis Khan on his way to a furry convention.” [Blogger’s note: I’ve actually seen/met this guy many times over the years, seen this very hat, and this description is so accurate it’s freaky.] [Blogger’s second note: I once attended a talk of his on sexual hauntings. At a birthday party. Don’t get molested by ghosts, folks.]

“The motive of these ‘meditations on foulness’ was to liberate a monk from his desire for women; they were, as scholar Liz Wilson calls them, ‘sensual stumbling blocks.’ The hope was that charnel medication would strip women of all their desirable qualities so men would realize they are merely flesh-sacks filled with blood, guts, and phlegm. The Buddha was explicit, claiming that a woman’s deception is not in her accessories, like makeup and gowns, but in her fraudulent garments of flesh, surreptitiously oozing grotesque liquids from its orifices.”

“You know you’ve reached desert not from the change of landscape but from the casino billboards, advertising performances from a rotating cast of slightly less relevant celebrities.”

“Insist on going to the cremation, insist on going to the burial. Insist on being involved, even if its is just brushing your mother’s hair as she lies in her casket. Insist on applying her favorite shade of lipstick, the one she wouldn’t dream of going to the grave without. Insist on cutting a small lock of her hair to place in a locket or a ring. Do not be afraid. These are human acts, acts of bravery and love in the face of death and loss.”