If I’m going to read about death, let it be a book by Caitlin Doughty. And in this book, Doughty travels the world, investigating various death-related practices. She makes the topic fun, which obviously sounds different from how we typically perceive death.
What I mean is, she has a unique storytelling ability. As she discusses the death and burial rituals in various countries, she also finds little, humorous oddities to lighten the mood. Sometimes it’s a self-deprecating aside about her own discomfort. And sometimes it’s a sidelong comparison to a familiar part of pop culture.
Either way, she does make death more palatable as she travels to Colorado, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, and more. Some of the practices she explains are a little familiar, like Mexico’s Día de los Muertos rituals or open-air cremation. But most were completely new to me and included things like mummification in family homes on an island in Indonesia.
Despite the world travels, Doughty seems most concerned that her readers view death as something normal, inevitable, and practically cherished. The way we say goodbye to a loved one says a lot about our culture. In the United States we have allowed corporations and government regulations to dictate our practices. Doughty aims to open people’s eyes, and offer options (always legal, but not always offered by funeral homes).
It takes a skilled author to take a subject relatively unknown to most people and make it both clear and interesting. Doughty does this in spades. I read her first book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and felt the same way. That book is more memoir, while this is more travelogue. Both, of course, share the theme of death and in Doughty’s words “a good death.”
As another reviewer mentioned, there are few moments in life as intense as the death and mourning of a loved one. When I read Doughty’s books, I think about what could have been different in those moments of my life. And what I’d like to do when I next encounter such a death in my circle of beloveds.
This is also a bit of an anthropological journey, since she investigates cultural practices. That changes its focus, and make make it more palatable if you’re death-averse. On the other hand, you might feel a strong stomach is needed. Either way, I’d encourage you to give it a go.