This mortician traveled the world to examine funeral rituals across cultures. What she found, she says, wasn’t morbid. And she doesn’t want you to think so, either.
Mahatma Gandhi once famously stated, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles–based mortician, funeral home owner, and death-positivity activist, thinks the same can be said about how a nation treats its deceased.
Doughty has devoted her career to fostering a constructive cultural conversation surrounding death in the Western world. When she’s not at her progressive funeral home, Undertaking LA, she’s hosting an informative—and lighthearted—YouTube series, “Ask A Mortician.” Or she’s writing novels that ask and answer the death-related questions most people avoid but have an undeniable curiosity for. (Her 2015 novel, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, was a New York Times best seller.) Most recently, Doughty traveled the world to examine how different cultures care for their dead. The result? From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, a fascinating chronicle of unusual experiences and important lessons.
Her inspiration for the book, Doughty says, came from her belief that the ways a culture responds to death often illustrates the ways people within that culture approach life itself. “I think what we do with our dead says a lot about us,” she says. “How we live is how we die.”
To write the book, Doughty traveled to Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, Bolivia, and across the United States. “I had done so much research on American funeral rituals,” Doughty says. “I thought, ‘Hey, there’s a whole beautiful range and diversity of practices out there. Plus, how we do things here isn’t at all how they have to be done.’”
In Indonesia, Doughty conversed with families as they cleaned and dressed the mummified remains of their loved ones. In Bolivia, she learned about ñatitas—human skulls decorated with flowers and adorned with cigarettes—which are believed to serve as intermediaries to the beyond. In Japan, she examined the unique relationship between long-standing funeral rituals and burgeoning technological advancements.
“Rituals from other parts of the world that we consider to be weird or gross can actually be far more healing than what we’re doing here,” Doughty says. “These are examples of cultures around the world where death isn’t treated with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. I wanted to show that, but also illuminate what’s possible here too.”
Were these explorations by Doughty macabre? Maybe. But were they thought-provoking? Definitely.
“Actually being in these places made me able to understand the importance of ritual in the healing process. It’s the gentle burial—excuse me, barrier—that allows people to properly engage with death. [Laughs]. Excuse the Freudian slip. I guess it’s not hard to tell what’s always on my mind.”
Buy a copy of From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death here.