Walking With the Dead

All my life I’ve been interested in the idea of death and its associated imagery. I was absolutely in my glory when I came across Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives of lost loved ones. Full of skull imagery and bright colors, it felt tailor-made for me. Not to mention, the focus is on remembrance and it does a great deal to take the fear out of death and the uncertainty of the afterlife.

Two years ago, we had a string of deaths in my family during the months of July to December. Within months we lost both my paternal grandparents and my uncle. His wake was held on my birthday. I would love to say that more than anything the imagery of Día de los Muertos gave me comfort. What it actually did was give me a way to express my grief. A starting point for speaking with those who are uncomfortable with the idea of death. Additionally, it allowed me to grieve for as long as I wanted, without public judgement. You see, my crafting room has been sugar skull themed ever since I set it up. (Likewise, when I was a teacher, my room was adorned with several sugar skulls.)

My brother first introduced me to Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and I found it an amusing and enlightening way of looking at the death industry. (Take a look at my review here.) When I found out that she had another book coming out, I was absolutely going bonkers until it was released! From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death is, as well as being a gorgeous volume with captivating illustrations, a splash of cold water in the face of American death perception. Until reading this book, I had never really thought about what other countries and cultures did with their dead. Literally!

Each segment of From Here to Eternity focuses on a different region, and details her observation of and participation in the death rituals. Insight into the sometimes-baffling rituals comes from Caitlin speaking directly with the people involved. They are surprisingly open about the origins of their rituals and the way they feel about their dead. Caitlin is respectful at every turn, and in her the practitioners seem to find a kindred spirit.

Locales vary from India and Japan to Mexico and Bolivia. The rituals themselves are also varied. Some involve returning the body and the spirit to nature, while other involve keeping the memory of the deceased front and center by visiting the body yearly.

My favorite practice are the ñatitas. In Bolivia, people have dreams where skulls call to them. They retrieve the skulls which are placed in honor in the house, and become an intermediary between the living and the dead. People come and visit the ñatitas to ask favors that they may not feel comfortable asking of the saints. They can ask for protection, financial aid, or help within the home. As Caitlin points out, this is also an important function to this practice. Oftentimes, women are the ones housing, caring for, and petitioning the ñatitas. These women often feel removed from the predominantly Catholic region. The ñatitas give them a measure of control over their faith and a recourse for help when the Church may not intervene.

More than anything, reading Caitlin’s books has made me really start thinking about how Americans, myself included, react to death. I have seen firsthand the aversion to grief, the way that people don’t know how to comfort someone grieving. The way there seems to be an unspoken moratorium on how long someone is allowed to grieve, or how closely related to the person they have to be for grief to be acceptable. Reading about the practices of these cultures has also confirmed Caitlin’s point that our culture doesn’t really have many safe spaces to work through grief.

When my grandparents and uncle died, I cried almost nonstop at the funeral home during the wake and the funeral. It was horrible. Antiseptic. Generic. Heartless and soulless. After my uncle’s wake we congregated in my grandparent’s home, which was in the same city and empty because they had passed a little earlier. The house was riotous with laughter and stories, and the smell of Lebanese food. We passed around pictures and shared memories, sitting on furniture we recognized. In our own space. Our own bubble of shared grief. It’s true there were tears, but there was no condescension, no platitudes. I feel robbed knowing that there was an option to have their bodies upstairs in their own beds. Where we could care for them and say our goodbyes on our own. And hold our wake beyond the hours designated by the funeral home. My uncle’s wake went over the allotted two hours. It wound up being closer to three, and it was evident that the funeral staff was more than ready for us to leave. I was ready too, because the photographs and mementos of our family history felt out of place in that awful peach-colored room with the borderline 80s furniture. I agree with Caitlin. It’s time to take a closer look at how we deal with death, and time to have an honest conversation.

I can’t recommend Smoke Gets in Your Eyes or From Here to Eternity highly enough. Whether death scares you or not, and regardless of your religion or lack thereof, these books are thought-provoking. Even if the reader doesn’t necessarily change their view of death and the death industry, they’re certainly conversation starters.

Voyeurs Wanted!

I have always had a bit of a thing for the macabre, whether it’s creepy old buildings, abandoned cemeteries, or dusty old antique shops. I’m also interested in the history of mental heath care, which at times has more closely resembled torture than treatment.

When Dipper sent me a link to The Order of the Good Death, I was intrigued. Through The Order, Caitlin works to bring a better understand of death to people. She is a proponent of making death a more natural part of our culture again, instead of it being cold and distant. Caitlin believes that if the family has more involvement in the funerary process, it helps the grieving process, and allows us to take an honest look at death and dying. Unfortunately it’s an experience none of us are going to avoid.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is an account of Caitlin’s first experience with death and the way it shaped the woman she would become. She writes about how she became part of the funeral business. When she first starts out, her ideas of a more commercialized, and almost candy-coated funeral home are well-intentioned, but not necessarily practical. As she gains more experience in the field and insight into the ways in which we mourn, she eventually comes to believe the direct opposite. Caitlin becomes an advocate of family involvement, believing that it’s healthier to confront death as a natural part of life. Having experienced three funerals close together a year ago, I can completely understand where she’s coming from. Spending time taking care of the body and preparing it for burial or cremation is a very intimate process.

She also explores different death rituals from other cultures and time periods. Rituals like mummification weren’t just done for the hell of it, but had meaning for the people involved and the community as a whole. Caitlin points out that over the last few decades we as a culture have developed a deep phobia of death, and have driven to make it almost impersonal. She also advocates exploring more than just the standard burial or cremation. There are now other options such as turning your cremated body into the container for a tree seed, or the pros and cons of donating your body to science. She also points out on numerous occasions about the damage done when we turn our backs on the natural process of dying.

While all of this may sound purely clinical, it’s a frank and intimate discussion about death, written by a witty and insightful narrator who has personal experience in the field. She also livens up her narrative by interjecting stories from her own career, be they humorous or sad. It’s well worth looking into both her book and her website.

On her website, under Death Positive, you will find a pledge you can sign if you wish to become part of the Order. It’s not a gimmick or a plea for funding. It’s an 8 point summation of the ideas of Death Positive, and The Order of the Good Death in general. If you’re wondering, yes, I signed the pledge. I agree with Caitlin – death is not something that should be hidden behind closed doors or pushed out of the cultural consciousness. It’s part of the natural balance – we are born, we grow and live and experience, and then we die. Asking questions about death should be encouraged, and we should work as a society to dispel the disinformation surrounding death and it’s processes.

I can’t praise Smoke Gets in Your Eyes enough. Caitlin is a solid writer who, pardon the bad pun, is attempting to breathe new life into our perception of death and dying. She is by no means disrespectful, and clearly has spent time researching her subject to the point of mastery. I am looking forward to her new book, From Here to Eternity, which will be released on October 3, 2017. If you’re interested in hearing her speak, check out the website. There are speaking engagements on the West Coast (which I would give my right thumb to attend!)