dear person book club: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

I’m obsessed these days with the funerary practices that exist in a small town in South-Central Colorado. Thanks to the mortician Caitlin Doughty, who reported and wrote the provocative book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, I understand that Crestone, CO, is the only city in the United States where it’s legal to have a funeral pyre available to the community (though she explains that there is one other private pyre at a Buddhist center in Northern Colorado). Doughty traveled to Crestone to observe an outdoor cremation. By her accounts, it was a beautiful ceremony. The body was wrapped in a coral-colored shroud and laid on a metal grate atop two parallel slabs of white concrete. Mourners stepped up one by one to lay a juniper bough on the body–all under a bright blue Colorado sky.

Unfortunately, the Crestone pyre ceremony is available to Crestone residents only. Reading about it, I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of the ceremony and wondered why more cities don’t offer outdoor cremations. Doughty writes that it comes down to money. Another neat fact about the Crestone ceremony: it cost only $500. Contrast that with the average American funeral, which costs $8,000-$10,000, not counting a burial plot or cemetery costs.

In her book, Doughty offers some criticism of the expensive, sanitized, and impersonal American funeral industry. But what speaks louder is what she shows through traveling the world and observing death rituals in other countries. In Japan, which has the highest cremation rate in the world, she observes a ceremony in which relatives use chopsticks to pick up their loved ones’ bones from cremation ashes. In one of the cities she visits in Indonesia, the bodies of the dead are kept at home between the time of death and the funeral. That period can last anywhere from months to years. “During that time the family cares for and mummifies the body, bringing the corpse food, changing its clothes and speaking to the body,” she writes.

The common denominator in almost all of the other locales Doughty visits is a comfort with the body. She traces a certain American discomfort with dead bodies to a myth that they are dangerous. It’s one of her missions to teach people otherwise, and it’s what she does in the progressive funeral home she runs, Undertaking LA.

Our discomfort with death feels evident even in talking with people about obituaries. And yet, unless you’re immortal, it’s something we will all deal with at some point, either for a loved one or in planning your own death care. Feeling squeamish? That’s okay. At least you’re here on this website. You read to the end of this blog post. Like Doughty writes, showing up for this, it’s an important first step.

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I write obituaries, living obituaries, eulogies & speeches