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Caitlin Doughty: Millennial mortician (©Mara Zehler)

If I ever thought about death before, I assumed, like Hamlet, that I would return to my constituent parts. (There is a nice Sanskrit idiom for dying which translates literally as “go to the five elements”.) But many of the trappings of Western-style, and particularly US-style funerals (embalming, hardwood coffins, vaults) are designed to prevent this for as long as possible — hardly dust to dust.

These, according to Caitlin Doughty, are symptoms of a culture which avoids thinking about death and is obsessed with concealing everything to do with it. Doughty (a licensed mortician) argues that our culture is “death-phobic” — we want to avoid thinking about death, and particularly about dead bodies. She wants us to be “death-positive” — not afraid.

This a mindset which fits neatly with the values that the so-called millennial generation views as important: body positivity, bodily autonomy, bodily self-determination. Your (dead) body, your choice.

Doughty, who is 33, runs a “progressive” funeral home in Los Angeles, Undertaking LA, and hosts a web series on YouTube called Ask A Mortician, covering everything from the morbid (necrophilia, embalming) to the practical (what to say to a bereaved person, what happens to your titanium hip implant in the crematorium). Incidentally, she also wants to reclaim the word “morbid”, since there’s no word for a healthy interest in death. The website of the Order Of The Good Death, an organisation of alternative death professionals which she co-founded, explains: “Not all deaths are created equal . . . A “good death” is personal. A person defines it, a family defines it, a community defines it, a culture defines it.”

From Here To Eternity is a sort of world tour of the alternatives, from a high-tech columbarium in Japan, lined with light-up Buddhas, to the Toraja people in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, who mummify relatives and keep them in their houses for several years before holding elaborate, expensive funerals. But reading about completely unfamiliar traditions takes out all the Freudianism: a death is just a death, the most normal thing in the world. Reading the book late at night, I found myself veering into hippie hypomania: wow, man, I’m really, like, here, I’m really in this thing.

Doughty’s obvious predecessor is Jessica Mitford, whose 1963 book The American Way of Death advocated reform of the US funeral industry. But Mitford’s book was not about preparing for death: her focus was financial and her main target was exploitative practices by the funeral industry. She followed through on her beliefs: she asked for — and got — the cheapest funeral possible. It cost $533.31, of which $475 was the cost of cremation.
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