I have been a Caitlin Doughty fan since I read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes four-ish years ago. I love her (admittedly lower) voice (like likes like?), and was delighted to see her speak at XOXO fest this year.
Recognizing our own mortality is a recurring theme in (Classical) Stoicism. It is a recurring theme in Buddhism. It is a recurring theme in every murder mystery book and forensic science television show. Every one of us will die (well, until I die, I have no idea about the rest of you).
Accepting this, being one with the end, and being able to prepare for it, are parts of the good death that Doughty writes about, talks about, fights for for the rest of us who are lost in the commercial maze of the American death industry. I appreciate her efforts for this far beyond anything I can adequately express.
This book is a survey of death rituals and customs around the world, some still around, some no longer around. Some cultures are more in tuned with death, pretty much all of them are more in tuned with death than the American culture. If I go after family members, and I have any say about the process, I'm going to sit with my grief, instead of allowing the American Death Industry to sweep my grief and family members under the rug.
I enjoyed this book, Doughty's humor on such a tough subject is spot-on wonderful. I strongly recommend this book for anyone not denying their own death, for anyone who thinks others shouldn't profit from their family member's grief.
And, good lord, stop embalming. WTF why embalm? Let's make sure the body is preserved so that it takes a LONG LONG LONG time to decay. What? No. Dump my body in liquid nitrogen until solid, drop from 10 meters up, take the shattered pieces and compost them. Let me actually grow a tree (those ashes? they don't do shit for growing trees, read the book to find out why).
That is to say, we consider death rituals savage only when they don’t match our own.
There was chaos, screaming. The footage from my small video camera went into Cloverfield mode, heavy breathing and sweeping shots of the ground.
French anthropologist Noëlie Vialles wrote of the food system in France, though this could be said of almost any country in the West: “slaughtering was required to be industrial, that is to say large-scale and anonymous; it must be non-violent (ideally: painless); and it must be invisible (ideally: non-existent). It must be as if it were not.” It must be as if it were not.
When the family had to clean inside his boxers and brush around his mummified penis, they looked just as uncomfortable as you would expect. They made a self-deprecating joke and got the job done.
Which raises the question, why preserve the body so intensely if you’re not planning to keep it around, America?
“The archetypal woman is as a bringer of life,” Sarah said, “but my body was a tomb.
In death, corpses don’t hold themselves together. They no longer have to play by the living’s rules.
Another woman noticed Sarah’s silent tears and went to get her a tissue, quietly holding her arm.
I joined in, and the two of us blanketed the mixture down his neck and around his arms, almost tucking him in. “We’re making a little nest for him! It looks comfy,” Katrina said. She stopped, scolding herself. “Dr. J wouldn’t want us to be this sentimental with the bodies. Cut it out, Katrina.” I wasn’t so sure. Earlier in the day Dr. Johnston had told me a story about a man in his eighties who donated his body to FOREST. After he died, his wife and daughter drove his body to the facility in the family truck. They were even allowed to pick a spot in the underbrush for him. Then, only six months later, his wife died. She requested that her body be laid out in an area next to her husband. That request was honored, and man and wife decayed into the earth side by side, together as they had been in life.
It is worth noting that the main players in the recomposition project are women—scientists, anthropologists, lawyers, architects. Educated women, who have the privilege to devote their efforts to righting a wrong. They’ve given prominent space in their professional careers to changing the current system of death. Katrina noted that “humans are so focused on preventing aging and decay—it’s become an obsession. And for those who have been socialized female, that pressure is relentless. So decomposition becomes a radical act. It’s a way to say, ‘I love and accept myself.’ ”
Women’s bodies are so often under the purview of men, whether it’s our reproductive organs, our sexuality, our weight, our manner of dress. There is a freedom found in decomposition, a body rendered messy, chaotic, and wild.
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.
Maybe a process like recomposition is our attempt to reclaim our corpses. Maybe we wish to become soil for a willow tree, a rosebush, a pine—destined in death to both rot and nourish on our own terms.
The people I spoke to in Barcelona (regular citizens and funeral workers alike) complained of how rushed the process of death seemed. Everyone felt the body should be buried within twenty-four hours, but nobody was quite sure why. Mourners felt pressure from funeral directors to get things completed. In turn, the funeral directors protested that families “want things fast, fast, fast, in less than twenty-four hours.” Everyone seemed trapped in the twenty-four-hour hamster wheel. Theories for this time frame ranged from historical factors like Spain’s Muslim past (Islam requires bodies to be buried swiftly after death) to the warm Mediterranean weather, which would allow bodies to putrefy more quickly than elsewhere in Europe.
Prior to the twentieth century, it was not uncommon to believe that the corpse was a dangerous entity that spread pestilence and disease. Imam Dr. Abduljalil Sajid explained to the BBC that the Muslim tradition of burial in the first twenty-four hours “was a way to protect the living from any sanitary issues.” The Jewish tradition follows similar rules. Such fear across cultures inspired the developed world to erect protective barriers between the corpse and the family.
The shift toward removing those barriers has been slow-going, even though prominent entities like the World Health Organization make clear that even after a mass death event, “contrary to common belief, there is no evidence that corpses pose a risk of disease ‘epidemics.’ ”
The Centers for Disease Control puts it even more bluntly: “The sight and smell of decay are unpleasant, but they do not create a public health hazard.”
With this in mind, I asked Josep, the owner, if they would allow the family to keep the body at home, sans protective glass boxes. Though he insisted Altima rarely received such a request,
Josep promised they would allow it, sending their employees out to the home to “close the holes.”
In the Judeo-Christian view—and thus, the dominant Western view—to die by suicide is a sinful, selfish act. This perception has been slow to fade, though the science is clear that suicide has root causes in diagnosable mental disorders and substance abuse. (“Sin” does not qualify for the DSM-5.) The cultural meaning of suicide in Japan is different. It’s viewed as a selfless, even honorable act.
The Japanese view of self-inflicted death as altruistic is more about wanting not to be a burden, rather than about fascination with mortality itself.
Then there are those who do not plan ahead, who have no close family. Their bodies leave dismal reddish-brown outlines on carpets or bedspreads when they are not found for weeks or months after death. They are victims of Japan’s epidemic of kodokushi, or “lonely deaths”: elderly people who die isolated and alone, with no one to find their bodies, let alone to come pray at their graves.
There is a difficult discussion that rarely happens among American funeral directors: viewing the embalmed body is often an unpleasant experience for the family. There are exceptions to this rule, but the immediate family is given almost no meaningful time with the body (which in all likelihood was swiftly removed after death). Before the family has time to be with their dead person and process the loss, coworkers and distant cousins arrive, and everyone is forced into a public performance of grief and humility. I wondered what it would be like if there were places like Lastel in every major city. Spaces outside the stiff, ceremonial norm, where the family can just be with the body, free from the performance required at a formal viewing. Spaces that are safe, comfortable, like home.
“Traditionally, Japanese people are concerned with the skeleton,” he explained. “They perform the kotsuage, as you know. They like the bones, they don’t want ash.” “Then what has changed?” I asked. “There are feelings that come with the bones, responsibility for the soul. Bones are real,” Masuda said. “The people who scatter the ash are trying to forget. Trying to put aside the things they don’t want to think about.” “Do you think that’s a good thing?” I asked. “I don’t think it’s a good thing. You can try to make death cleaner, but especially after the big earthquake, and with the suicide rate being very high, death has come closer. There are people who take their lives before the age of ten. People are beginning to think about death. You can’t ignore it anymore.”
Women like Doña Ana and Doña Ely represent a threat to the Catholic Church. Through magic, belief, and their ñatitas, they facilitate a direct, unmediated connection to the powers of the beyond, no male intermediary required. It reminded me of Santa Muerte, the Mexican Saint of Death, who is unapologetically female. She carries a scythe and her long robes are vividly colored, draped over her skeletal form.
We cannot single out Catholicism as the only belief system with a history of dismissing the agency of female devotees. Regardless of a woman’s more egalitarian place in modern Buddhism, the ancient scriptures tell of the Buddha encouraging his community of male monks to take trips to the charnel grounds to meditate on women’s rotting bodies. 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 meditation 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 garment of flesh, surreptitiously oozing grotesque liquids from its orifices.
Of course, these silent, decaying women of the charnel grounds were not permitted to have needs, desires, or spiritual journeys of their own to take. Wilson, again, explains that “in their role as teachers they do not utter a single word. What they have to teach is not what is on their minds but what is going on in their bodies.” The charnel corpses are mere objects, delusion-busters for men to meditate on and thus gain the status of “worthy.”
I spent the first thirty years of my life devouring animals. So why, when I die, should they not have their turn with me? Am I not an animal?
Death avoidance is not an individual failing; it’s a cultural one. Facing death is not for the faint-hearted. It is far too challenging to expect that each citizen will do so on his or her own. Death acceptance is the responsibility of all death professionals—funeral directors, cemetery managers, hospital workers. It is the responsibility of those who have been tasked with creating physical and emotional environments where safe, open interaction with death and dead bodies is possible.
At the open-air pyre in Colorado, I was held within the elegant bamboo walls, which kept mourners safe as the flames shot high. There was magic to each of these places. There was grief, unimaginable grief. But in that grief there was no shame. These were places to meet despair face to face and say, “I see you waiting there. And I feel you, strongly. But you do not demean me.” In our Western culture, where are we held in our grief? Perhaps religious spaces, churches, temples—for those who have faith. But for everyone else, the most vulnerable time in our lives is a gauntlet of awkward obstacles.