Saturday, October 6, 2018


Welcome to a new edition of the Chapter x Chapter series, a column where I take a deep dive into horror reading with a new review for each chapter of the book.  As we embark on our next literary adventure, I'll be looking to change up the format a bit.  Frankly, I think doing a full, separate post for each chapter was a bit much for me and I'm thinking it may have been a bit much for you all.  So for everyone's sanity and to make sure I can do more than one book a year, rather than doing a separate post for each chapter, I'll be updating this post with a new chapter as I progress through the book.

This time around, the book in question isn't strictly an analysis on horror, but it does focus on a topic that permeates pretty much any horror film:  death.  Caitlin Doughty, mortician and founder of The Order of the Good Death, isn't a stranger to investigating our attitudes about our inevitable demise.  In her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty recounted her time working in a crematorium.  In From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Doughty travels the world to see how various cultures care for their dead as a contrast to those here in the U.S., which she asserts is primarily used as a means to avoid confronting death. 


Doughty opens her book with anecdote from the early days of her funeral home when she had to explain to a hospice nurse that there aren't any laws preventing a person from keeping a body in their custody as opposed to having it rushed off to a morgue.  Concerned that the U.S. has come to avoid death, Doughty looks to traditions regarding death by exploring the death rituals of other cultures.  

Here's a hot take:  death is terrifying.  As someone who is, at best, an agnostic, I often grapple with what will happen when I cash out.  Is there an afterlife?  Will I be reincarnated?  Or will it literally be an extended dirt nap?  So I find myself drawn to how people find comfort and closure in caring for their dead.

I'm also fascinated by the idea that cultures have clashed on their philosophies about death rituals since the days of ancient Greece.  Some people are horrified at the idea of cremating a body but think it perfectly natural to eat their loved ones remains.  Others don't understand while you would bury a body before the community has had the opportunity to strip its bones of flesh.

Of course, leave it to Western/Christian dogma to obnoxiously proclaim its rituals as exclusively correct while at the same time allowing big business to twist even that into an impersonal opportunity for an up sell.  I look forward to seeing if I can find some piece of mind by seeing how other cultures approach death.

Inside joke that you'll only get when you read the book:
Hey kids!  I'll bet you didn't know that corpse theft can be a heart-warming enterprise.

Doughty's first location visit is in Crestone, CO where she takes part in a ceremony at America's only community open-air pyre.  She discusses her experience at a cremation ceremony for a recently deceased local named Laura while weaving in the history about cremation, a process that has origins dating back tens of thousands of years.  She discusses various iterations of cremation used by cultures around the world, and explores the industrialized version adopted by the U.S. once it was developed back in the 19th century.

I'd always considered myself fairly forward-thinking by wanting to be cremated, believing it to be a more sustainable process than burials.  I never really considered that cremation comes with its own set of problems, including the amount of gas needed to perform industrial cremation and the emissions produced by even the comparatively less-impact open-air processes.

What's more, I'd also never really thought about how in the U.S. cremation still suffers from the same issues of death denial as traditional burials, with cremation furnaces often tucked in out of the way places for bodies to be burned, out of sight/out of mind.  This has me thinking about not only how I would want to be cremated, but also my dad.  He's been pretty vocal about wanting to be cremated, but I know that in my own grieving process visualization is important for closure.  If my dad is just gone one day and replaced by a box of ash, I could very well compartmentalize his death rather than having a chance to really feel it, which I think is important.  So I suppose I have an interesting conversation coming up with my dad:  "Hey old man, I want to watch you burn!"

Inside joke that you'll only get when you read the book:
Consider Porta-Pyre for your next wake!

Doughty travels to the Tana Toraja area of Indonesia to see a ma'nene' ceremony where family members pay tribute to the mummified corpses of their deceased loved ones.  As Doughty explains, people in the Tana Toraja area don't see death as the type of final severance from this existence as we do in Western culture.  People will often interact and even live with the corpses of dead family members in the belief that there is still something of their loved ones remaining in the mummified body.  With that in mind, Doughty describes a very ornate ceremony in the ma'nene' where the dead are honored with elaborate ceremonies and bodies are dressed and displayed.

I'd imagine that the idea of living with a mummified corpse would be too macabre even for hardcore horror fans.  But I think Doughty makes a strong case that in a culture where dead isn't dead (at least as we know it), keeping a corpse in your home is just a way to continue being able to interact with your loved ones.  As someone who believes death marks the end of a person's attachment to their body (admittedly I don't know where the hell we go from there, if anywhere) I'm intrigued by the idea a culture where the dead stay with them in a very literal sense.

Another interesting note is Doughty's acknowledgement of a level of intrusion inherent in her quest to experience the death rituals of other cultures.  In the case of her visit to Tana Toraja, she makes note of other tourists in the area who brashly insert themselves into ceremonies for the sake of a picture while also having the self-awareness to acknowledge that she's doing something similar but to a lesser degree.  This self-awareness may not fully absolve the intrusion, but I don't know that Doughty would expect it.

Inside joke that you'll only get when you read the book:
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho would probably get a very different reviews in Tara Toraja.

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