Book Review: “From Here To Eternity: Traveling The World In Search Of The Good Death,” by Caitlin Doughty

Author Caitlin Doughty traveled the world to see how other cultures care for their loved ones who have died

From Here To Eternity” by Caitlin Doughty is a fascinating look at funerary practices from around the world. Doughty, herself a funeral home owner, was inspired to witness how death is dealt with in other cultures. She wanted to show that there is no one, correct way to understand or deal with the deaths of our loved ones.

Book cover of "From Here To Eternity"She weaves historical narratives among vivid descriptions of the various cultural practices she was able to witness firsthand. Throughout the book, she compares these methods/ceremonies of caring for the dead to our own practices here in the United States. And the differences can be quite striking.

Doughty poignantly questions whether American funeral rites as they are practiced now actually serve the bereaved.

In fact, in her introduction to the book she writes:

One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death. Why do we refuse to have these conversations, asking our family and friends what they want done with their body when they die? Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put both our pocket-books and our ability to mourn at risk.

Doughty rightfully states that it is wrong for us to think that our Western rituals related to death are superior to the rest of world. She also believes that we have fallen behind many cultures regarding “proximity, intimacy, and ritual around death.”

Death And Travel

“From Here To Eternity” could in one sense be classified as a travel book with an emphasis on death and dying. Each chapter is named after the country or U.S. state where she witnessed a different death ritual. For instance, in the “Indonesia” chapter she discusses two different ceremonies dealing with the dead.

First, she describes a funeral she witnessed in the Tana Toraja Regency. (Tana Toraja is home to the Toraja ethnic group. Doughty attended a Torajan funeral.) Accompanied by beating drums and crashing cymbals, the corpse of the person who had died was placed in a replica of a traditional Torajan house. The mini-house was subsequently carried by 35 men, who transported this “coffin” into a courtyard surrounded by a crowd of people.

Without giving too much away, one of the main differences between Torajan and American death cultures Doughty points out is the time table in which they deal with the dead. The man being honored during the funeral she describes had died three months earlier.

In Toraja, the body is kept in the family residence between the time of death and the funeral. Sometimes, people who have died can stay in their loved ones’ homes for years as the living family cares for and mummifies the body. The family will also change the corpse’s clothes and talk to them.

The people who have died during this time are not truly dead yet in Torajan culture. Not breathing, of course, but they are more in a kind of fever-like state. The illness ends when an animal is sacrificed, which will come to signify the person’s final breath.

Native Torajans in Indonesia posing with the mummified remains of deceased family members during the ma'nene' ritual

During the ma’nene’ ritual, native Torajans in Indonesia bring out their mummified loved ones The ceremony occurs every few years.
Credit: sea-globe.com

Doughty also describes the ma’nene’ tradition, during which mummified bodies of people who have died (some of whom died many years ago) are brought out of their house-graves. During this time, the living family members interact with the corpse. Some take family photos, others have picnics with their loved ones who have died; it’s as if the family is being reunited with their loved one.

This would undoubtedly cause most Americans to recoil, but it’s one way in which the Torajan people pay tribute to their loved ones and stay connected with them, something Doughty thinks is very important.

These are just two brief summaries of the many different cultures’ death rituals discussed in the book. “From Here To Eternity” takes us from Indonesia to Japan, Colorado to North Carolina, Mexico to Bolivia, and a host of other places around the world.

Historical Lessons

Doughty teaches readers not only about different cultures and their views of death and dying. She also provides historical context for many of the death rituals she describes.

For example, early in the book she gives a brief history of industrial cremation. According to Doughty, industrial furnace cremation originated in Europe in the late 19th century. She goes on to describe why it was created, and how and where the cremation “movement” continued to develop.

In the “Mexico” chapter, Doughty recounts the historical significance and resurgence of the importance of the Dias de los Muertos. She mentions how the long-standing tradition began to fall out of favor with urbanites in Mexico during the early 20th century. But over time, it has again become very symbolic of Mexico, representing in different ways popular Mexican culture, tourist culture and protest culture.

Final Thoughts

Doughty writes in a very fluid, easily-read manner. Throughout “From Here To Eternity” she uses humor to mitigate the sometimes bleak and even macabre descriptions. Yet she still treats the subject matter with a great deal of respect, despite the comedy. (There are many descriptions of decomposition and the like, so the comedic respites can certainly come in handy.)

Portrait of Caitlin Doughty, author of "From Here To Eternity"

Caitlin Doughty
Credit: orderofthegooddeath.com

There are also hand-drawn, black-and-white illustrations strewn throughout “From Here To Eternity” quite regularly. Drawn by Landis Blair, the illustrations help the reader visualize many of the vivid scenes Doughty describes. They are great additions to the anecdotes.

One of the more important takeaways from the book is that we should not avoid death. It’s inevitable, and the more we talk about it and acknowledge it, the better off we’ll be. Doughty writes, “We avoid the death that surrounds us at our own peril…Death avoidance is not an individual failing; it’s a cultural one.”

Doughty believes that it is crucial for American society to better engage in the process of death and dying. She calls for people to have a ring of safety while grieving. There are, but should not be, feelings of social shame when it comes to grief. She points to the fact that in Western culture, it is taboo and socially awkward to discuss death and grief, and people are oftentimes looked down upon if they openly talk about it.

Through her travels, Doughty found that every culture had their own way to be in touch with their dead in some way. And she believes we should be connected with our loved ones who have died, not separated from them. In essence, we need to participate in the process of caring for our loved ones after they have died.

“From Here To Eternity” meshes well with our goal here at SevenPonds. We want to foster an environment in which people can discuss death and dying openly, without fear of judgement. That being said, I highly recommend this book to any of our readers and anyone who is interested in how other cultures treat their loved ones who have died.

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“We Are the Champions” by Queen

Queen's iconic anthem is a perfect memorial song for a loved one who lived life on their own terms
"News of the World" album with "We Are the Champions"

Credit: wikipedia.org

For those of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s, the word “Queen” evokes memories of the rock & roll band led by singer/songwriter Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara in the Sultanate of Zanzibar in 1946). From the early 1970s until his death from AIDS in 1991, Mercury captivated audiences around the world with his four-octave vocal range, over-the-top performances and unique song-writing style. Perhaps best known for the masterful (and somewhat mysterious) “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mercury wrote many of Queen’s biggest hits, including “Somebody to Love,” “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” But the song that resonated most strongly with millions of his fans was “We Are the Champions” from Queen’s 1977 album “News of the World.”

Now a popular anthem played at sporting events worldwide (it was the official theme song of the 1994 FIFA World Cup), “We Are the Champions” is a song about a person who has faced adversity and unfairness, but has never let either one beat him down. Although it certainly isn’t your traditional memorial or funeral song, it would be a perfect tribute for a loved one who lived a singular, perhaps even somewhat rebellious life. It could also be part of a unique send-off for a person who fought a long, difficult battle with a terminal disease.

The song begins:

I’ve paid my dues

Time after time.

I’ve done my sentence,

But committed no crime.

And bad mistakes

I’ve made a few

I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face

But I’ve come through.

This is followed by the iconic chorus, which ends with the song’s most famous line,

“We are the champions of the world!”

Freddy Mercury performing "We Are the Champions"

Freddy Mercury
Credit: spin.com

A bit reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” “We Are the Champions” seems almost autobiographical for the openly bisexual Mercury. Growing up in a home where homosexuality was unacceptable (his parents practiced the Zoroastrian faith, which historically condemns homosexual behavior) and a society that was barely tolerant of it, Mercury most likely felt he was fighting an uphill battle for acceptance much of his life. Even after achieving a level of success most people only dream of, he seems to be telling us with this song that he still felt the need to fight for the right to live life on his own terms.

I’ve taken my bows

And my curtain calls

You gave me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it,

And I thank you all.

But it’s been no bed of roses,

No pleasure cruise.

I consider it a challenge before the whole human race

And I ain’t gonna lose.

Freddie Mercury’s “We Are the Champions” reminds us that life is challenging and unfair. Pain, loss, grief and sadness come to each of us. No one escapes, not even rock stars.  And while some of us face these challenges with grace and equanimity, others have more difficulty coping. Some even succumb to hopelessness and despair. And then there are the “warriors” among us, the folks who always seem to come out swinging, ready to take on any challenge and determined to beat any odds. 

“We Are the Champions” is a memorial song for that person in your life.  

Watch Queen perform the song in the video below. You can also read the full lyrics here.

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Psychedelics and a Smartphone App Create Healing “Trips”

New Wavepaths app shows promise as a therapeutic tool
A face of someone on a trip with psychdelics

Credit: bigthink.com

Psychedelics — the “party drugs” that became part of the counterculture in the 1960s and have since been banned in the United States — are not part of what most of us consider mainstream medicine. In fact, all psychedelics, including LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and MDMA, are so-called Schedule I drugs that, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, have no safe or acceptable medical use. Nonetheless, researchers in both the United States and Europe are currently looking at ways to use these now-illegal substances to treat a host of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and Johns Hopkins University, for example, have successfully used the drug psilocybin in combination with psychotherapy to treat anxiety in people with life-threatening illnesses. And in November, the Food and Drug Administration gave its approval to two clinical trials examining the efficacy of the psychedelic MDMA (more commonly known as Ecstasy) in treating PTSD. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies also recently completed two pilot studies examining the effects of LSD-assisted psychotherapy in people with anxiety. The study was similar to one study done in Switzerland in 2014.

And now, a neuroscientist and a composer have teamed up to combine technology, artificial intelligence, music and psychedelics into a smartphone app with the goal of helping people everywhere achieve better mental health. The app is called Wavepaths, and while it’s still under development, it’s already producing some spectacular results, at least according to Zoe Cormier’s account in Rolling Stone.

Music as Therapy

Wavepaths was developed by famed musician/artist Brian Eno and Mendel Kaelen, a post-doctoral neuroscientist at the Imperial College of London. It uses “generative music” (a style of music that continuously creates itself according to a specific set of rules) and artificial intelligence to deliver tailored user experiences. (For a taste of what generative music sounds like, check out this version of Terry Riley’s “In C.”)

Brian Eno is part of the team using psychedelics and music in a smartphone app

Brian Eno has been making music for half a century
Credit: theverge.com

The goal, according to Kaelen, is to allow users “to become more intimate with ourselves and others, to listen to what our emotions are telling us, to explore what can be discovered in the depths of our own minds, and to drive meaningful changes in our personal lives.”  

There are two versions of the app in the works, explain Eno and Kaelen, one for lay people and one for professionals. The latter can use it in combination with psychotherapy and/or psychedelics depending on their patient’s needs.

But even the version that will be available to the public has therapeutic features, including the ability to respond to data gathered from the user and deliver a musical experience based on their individual tastes and psychological profile. And because the music is played by a computer versus a human being, its compositions are “incommensurable,” or not likely to be repeated ever again. Thus, the chance that a familiar piece of music could evoke an unhappy memory and disrupt the user’s experience is very small.

The overall effect of Wavepaths, says Eno, is to induce a sense of calm. Generative music doesn’t demand the listener’s attention, he explains. And in a world where everything else is trying to “grab you by the lapels,” that can be a welcome relief.

Eno and Kaelen also plan to integrate “listening exercises” into the app, which will teach users how to listen to music in new and potentially therapeutic ways.

“When you allow yourself to be deeply touched and fully moved by music, then music can carry you beyond the boundaries of your daily sense of self – and you can see your life from a new perspective,” Kaelen told Rolling Stone.

Still A Few Years Off

Wavepaths received seed money from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, and Eno and Kaelen are now looking for more collaborators. And while the concept is well-developed, actual implementation is still a few years away.

In the meantime, Eno has created some “teasers” for the public in the form of 150 sound installations that include samples of what will be on the app. Unfortunately, unless you live in London, you’ll have to make a special trip to experience them.

Or you can wait for the app.

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“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”

- Kenji Miyazawa
A brightly burning fire by the side of a lake in the dark

Credit: umgasmagazine.com

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as a tribute to enduring love
Handmade heart

A circle of love surrounds my heart

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of enduring love.The project began in 2005, when Page Hodel first met Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” Soon afterwards, Page began leaving handmade hearts on Madalene’s doorstep every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.”

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died on June 20th, 2006. To remember her, Page continues to make a heart every Monday in celebration of her life.

To learn more about Page and the Monday Hearts for Madalene Project, please visit her website, Monday Hearts for Madalene.

See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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A Funeral Poem for an Infant

"A Baby's Death" by Algernon Charles Swinburne

A few years ago, friends of mine were thrilled by the arrival of their first son. Their joy quickly turned to horror and grief a few hours later when doctors informed them that the baby had a fatal heart defect. A few hours later it was all over. My friend was discharged from the hospital the next day to go home with empty arms. Planning their son’s funeral service, my friends looked everywhere for a funeral poem for an infant. They finally settled on “A Baby’s Death” by Algernon Charles Swinburne.

SwinburneAn infant sleeping was born in 1837, the oldest of six children. During his long and distinguished career, he wrote poems, plays, novels and contributed to the 11th edition of “Encyclopedia Britannica.” He was best known for his impressive vocabulary and his ability to create interesting meters and imaginative rhymes.

In Swinburne’s youth, his cohorts described him as “nervous” and “frail” but acknowledged that he possessed a passionate, if anxious, energy that fueled his writing. He sometimes liked to shock people by bragging about taking part in bizarre sexual behaviors.

When he was 42, Swinburne had a complete mental and physical breakdown. A long-term friend, Theodore Watts, took Swinburne under his wing and into his home. After he recovered, Swinburne lived a long, calm and socially respectable life. Watts later said he had “saved the man and killed the poet.”

There is little information available to provide context for this funeral poem for an infant. It appears that Swinburne wrote it to offer comfort and hope to a grieving friend. In “A Baby’s Death,” Swinburne acknowledges the grief parents feel at having their precious child die. It also, however, introduces the idea that the baby’s soul will live forever amongst the angels in paradise.

Swinburne writes in a series of three verses. Each set of verses contains one verse with four lines, one verse with three lines and a final verse with four lines. Each set focuses on one of the babies features such as his or her hands or feet. For instance:

“The little hands that never sought

Earth’s prizes, worthless all as sands,

What gifts has death, God’s servants brought

The little hands?

 

We ask: but love’s self silent stands

Love that lends eyes and wings to thought

To search where death’s dim heaven expands.

 

Ere this, perchance, though love know nought,

Flower’s fill them grown in lovelier lands

Where hands of guiding angels caught

The little hands.”

Swinburne’s final verse of this funeral poem for an infant is also very moving:

“But we saw born beneath some tender sphere

Michael, an angel and a little child,

Whose loss bows down to weep upon his bier

The song that smiled.”

Photo of Algernon Charles Swinburne

Credit: poetryfoundation.org

When my friends held their baby’s funeral service, they changed the name from Michael to the name they had selected for their child.

Although Swinburne speaks of God and angels, this poem does not advocate any particular religion. My friends are both Wiccans, and they were enchanted by the image of their baby’s hands full of flowers.

The task of finding a funeral poem for an infant is not an easy one. If you are ever in this sad position, consider Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “A Baby’s Death.” Some of the Victorian-era expressions may seem a little stilted now, but overall the poem offers comfort and reassurance to grieving friends and family members.

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