From Here to Eternity
by Caitlin Doughty, Weidenfeld, 272pp, £15
At the outset of this book, subtitled “Travelling the World to Find the Good Death”, Caitlin Doughty quotes the psychiatrist Irvin D Yalom: “Adults who are racked with death anxiety are not odd birds who have contracted some exotic disease, but men and women whose family and culture have failed to knit the proper protective clothing for them to withstand the icy chill of mortality.”
This is the second book I’ve reviewed in recent months based on this very premise: the modern world’s failure to provide rituals and practices that help us to face up to death. Kevin Toolis’s My Father’s Wake (Books, October 27) was a wonderful paean to the funeral customs of Achill Island, presenting them as a desperately needed alternative to the impersonal operations of what he calls the “Western Death Machine”.
Caitlin Doughty also despairs of how things are done these days. A century of the funeral business in America has, she feels, wiped people’s memories of what funerals once were: family and community-run affairs in which, for instance, a father might carry his son to the grave in a homemade coffin; or a wife might wash and dress the body of her husband.
Indeed, the latter example is particularly pertinent, as Doughty argues that a role that used to belong to caring, self-sacrificing women has been wrenched from their hands by well-paid, self-serving men. The bottom line is that the mainstream West has “fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to proximity, intimacy and ritual around death”.
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