In Mexico, grievers console themselves over the loss of their family and friends through the famous Días de Los Muertos (Days of the Dead) festival, ‘when the dead are said to return to indulge in the pleasures of the living’. In South Sulawesi, Indonesia, they mummify and then regularly clean and re-dress their deceased relatives, through the ritual ceremony of ma’nene. In La Paz, Bolivia, locals even adopt human skulls and mummified heads, offering them prayers and cigarettes in return for their help.
If you’ve ever desired a ‘geography of death’-type book, this is what you were looking for. Caitlin Doughty, a professional mortician based in Los Angeles, set out to understand why Americans – alongside much of the ‘developed’ world – are increasingly paying through the nose for what seems the least comforting and most isolating (as well as boring) of funeral practices. ‘In an impressively short time,’ she writes, ‘America’s funeral industry has become more expensive, more corporate, and more bureaucratic than any other funeral industry on Earth. If we can be called best at anything, it would be at keeping our grieving families separated from their dead.’
The cultural practices she hones in on are as varied as they are bizarre. What she does find are many people who feel far more comfortable with death than most of us would ever admit. People who don’t regard death as the end, for whom corpses remain valued members of the family.
Whether you’re inclined to embrace the many fascinating traditions, or recoil in horror, this book cries out for less taboo and squeamishness around what happens to our physical selves once we’ve breathed our last. Buried? Cremated? Composted? Left atop a mountain to be devoured by vultures? No one method will suit all, but if anything, this is a book that screams for these and other options to at least be on the table. Written with great humour and respect, this book will undoubtedly educate, entertain, and leave you dying to learn more.