“Nine years ago, when I began working with the dead, I heard other practitioners speak about holding the space for the dying person and their family. With my secular bias, ‘holding the space’ sounded like saccharine hippie lingo. This judgement was wrong. Holding the space is crucial, and exactly what we are missing. To hold the space is to create a ring of safety around the family and friends of the dead, providing a place where they can grieve openly and honestly, without fear of being judged.”
Addressing death is difficult for many people, even though it’s a natural part of life. Whether it’s having to confront the notion that a loved one is gone, or attending a funeral, death isn’t an easy subject. But death can take on a whole new meaning in other cultures. Mortician Caitlin Doughty went around the world to write From Here To Eternity, a book about funeral rituals from various cultures. Death isn’t presented as something to fear, but as rather something that can heal, that connects family members together. Doughty takes the reader on a journey that features wish-granting skulls, open-air pyres and mummies.
The book is split into cultures, ranging from Indonesia to Bolivia. Doughty starts off by pointing out how expensive funerals have become in America, that it’s a business that charges a fortune for the privilege to bury a loved one. She compares it to the simplicity of other places, where funerals are seen as family affair.
On the island of Tana Toraja in Indonesia, people mummify their relatives and keep them in the house for years. Doughty goes into vivid detail about how she witnessed a funeral rite on Tana Toraja. While I was reading it, I can admit to grimacing at the thought of having a dead body in the home, but to the people of Tana Toraja, it’s a natural part of their culture. The fear of the dead is a Western construct, while other communities find comfort in being close to a body.
Doughty recounts the importance of death in Mexico and how the Day of the Dead is a method of encouraging spirits to return to the family home. In Tokyo, Japanese families engage in kotsuage, where relatives use chopsticks to pluck bones from cremation ashes and place them into urns. Both cultures venerate their dead in ways that bring them closer to loved ones.
Throughout From Here To Eternity, Doughty champions women who face death bravely. I found myself moved by the story of a woman called Sarah, whose child died while it was in her womb. This caused Sarah to get in touch with her Mexican heritage and find comfort within the rituals. Sarah could grieve in the open and not feel judged.
“We won’t get our ritual back if we don’t show up. Show up first, and the ritual will come. Insist on going to the cremation, insist on going to the burial. Insist on being involved, even it is just brushing your mother’s hair as she lies in her casket. Insist on applying her favourite shade of lipstick, the one she wouldn’t dream of going to the grave without. Insist on cutting a small lock of her hair to place in a locket or a ring. Do not be afraid. These are human acts, acts of bravery and love in the face of death and loss.”
Doughty’s writing is upbeat and emotive, encouraging the reader to be brave and mourn in their own way. From Here To Eternity is a thought-provoking book that inspired me to think of death in a different light. Perhaps it will do the same for you. You can buy it now on Amazon.