Book Thoughts: From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

Let me start this by saying: I like cemeteries. I find the quiet relaxing, I like wandering around looking for unique headstones, and I make a game out of trying to find the oldest grave in the park. I especially love the colonial-era headstones you can find in New England, with their hand-hewn skulls that are either dopey or terrifying or reverent or some mix of all three.

I was also raised by a father who thought that the maybe-true story of Eskimos putting the elderly out on ice floes when they became a burden was a good idea. So, reading a book with a section about the dead being fed to vultures was kind of right up my alley.

I learned some surprising things while reading this book. I always thought a funeral pyre was a neat idea, like a dramatic cremation, but it turns out they’re not great for the environment. I would have assumed a dead body in the wild would be gone overnight, but it turns out unless you have the right kind of animals around, it’s unlikely something is going to show up and eat your body. I learned that, in general, it’s actually kind of hard to get rid of a body, especially the bones, and it’s mostly regulations and price gouging that requires you to take something that is already hard to break down and wrap it in a bunch of metal and wood and cement enclosures that are even harder or impossible to break down.

More than anything, the book reminded me that death in the United States is an inglorious thing, and there’s really not much you can do about it. The options for alternative burials are incredibly limited, and the system is setup in a way that means end-of-life for most people involves dying in an uncaring hospital environment and picking a pre-packaged plan from a funeral home, with the nice plan giving you two hours to grieve and please make sure the photos we’re going to display on the TV in the lobby are formatted correctly. Or as the book puts it:

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.

I am not religious, so I understand this. If I was, and I could pick a religion that I thought would respect my death in the way I want it to be respected I’d go with the religion of the ancient Egyptians and be buried in a rock pyramid with my cats. Since that’s probably out of the question, cremation seems like a fine backup plan, but after reading about the Bolivian Ñatitas, I kinda want someone to keep my skull around too. Doesn’t even have to be a family member, a future web-worker can make me a crown of USB cables and I’ll help them decide which JavaScript datetime library to use, or something.

Anyway, I recommend this book. It’s a quick read, it’s mid-October, you can finish it before Halloween, when Americans dress up as ghosts and ghouls and pretend that death is terrifying, and most of the rest of the world throws a party to celebrate the part of life that is death.