Several weeks ago I attended a presentation that my sister had given at the National Gallery of Australia. She had participated in the ArtMed program in 2016 whilst studying medicine. For the program, she had conducted a research project into how death is presented in the artwork of the Sumatran culture and compared it to the attitudes present in contemporary Western art inspired by the vanitas tradition. She had argued that the content of Sumatran textiles embraces death as a transition period which is not to be feared, whilst the vanitas inspired artwork suggested that death presented an ultimate end that should be avoided at all costs and it was a failing of the medical system. Her presentation was of particular interest to me because it touched on a topic which I had been immersed in over the past couple of years: the fear of death. It is a topic of particular importance to the book Immortality by Stephen Cave, which describes methods in which civilisations over time have sought life beyond death. Edgar Allan Poe considered both death and beauty to be the purest subjects of poetry because they are such powerful components of the human condition. Harrowing albums such as Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens and A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie also explore death in a very personal and emotional sense. So, hearing such a unique perspective on death in the context of different contemporary cultures was fascinating to me. After the presentation, my sister recommended me a book on the subject: From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty.
In the book, Doughty takes us on a journey to explore death rituals across the world as they still exist today. Our journey starts in Crestone, Colorado, with the only community open-air cremation pyre in America. Doughty then leads us through South Sulawesi in Indonesia where families continue to care for their dead for months or years after they have passed. It is believed that the person has not truly died until a ma’nane’ ritual is performed, involving a large community gathering and the ritualistic sacrifice of pigs and buffalo. We travel through Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations and visit a corpse composting research group in North Carolina. In Japan we visit modern Buddhist shrines where a loved one’s cremated remains can be summoned with a key card and push of a button. Then in Bolivia we discover people who own collections of ñatitas, which are human skulls believed to possess spiritual power. The entire journey is framed in such a way that it explores the damage caused by the Western fear of the dead and the commercialisation of the funeral industry. Doughty herself is a practicing mortician, giving us a unique perspective from someone directly involved in the industry.
The narrative in the Western world appears to be that the dead are unclean. Bodies are embalmed and locked away from family members as quickly as possible. Doughty explains how one cremation facility she visited in Spain featured three panes of glass between the viewing area and the furnace, positioned such that it was impossible to see inside the oven from behind the glass. There also seemed to exist a general expectation in Spain that bodies were required to be buried within 24 hours, but nobody was entirely sure why. She claims that the Western fear of being in close proximity to the dead is misguided and irrational. One common misconception is that dead bodies pose health and disease risks. Such an idea, however, is not supported by any existing research and the World Health Organisation asserts that “contrary to common belief, there is no evidence that corpses pose a risk of disease ‘epidemics.’” Furthermore, the American Centers for Disease and Control explain that “The sight and smell of decay are unpleasant, but they do not create a public health hazard.” There does not appear to be a good reason for fearing proximity to the dead. Yet such a narrative is supported by the embalming, burial, and cremation practices ubiquitous to Western society.
Fear of proximity to the dead, Doughty argues, appears to be a narrative that is perpetuated by a corporate deathcare industry. When dead bodies are feared or viewed as revolting, it becomes important to pay for embalming processes, purchase expensive caskets, or pay exorbitant amounts for cremation. It also increases the urgency of completing these processes, ensuring that bodies can be churned through the funeral industry as quickly as possible. Alternative deathcare options are purported to be barbaric, perhaps because there is no mechanism which exists for the funeral industry to monetise such options at this stage. But the current practices lack intimacy and put pressure on families during moments that should be spent processing grief and bonding with loved ones.
For all intents and purposes, I still consider death a finite end. Perhaps there is something that comes afterwards but, with no way of truly knowing about such an existence, I personally find it to be a more reasonable course of action to treat this fraction of time during which I am alive to be the only chance I’ve got. Graduating from high school provided a firm milestone that brought to light the idea that I’m already at least one quarter of the way through my allotted time. I had just completed one quarter of my life, so what did I have to show for my work? Was I on the right track for a successful life? What does it even mean to have a ‘successful life’? Had I wasted my time and potential up until now? What measures could I even use to judge such perceptions of ‘potential’? A lot of these questions raised significant anxiety about the inexorable and ultimate deadline. These questions inevitably materialise when faced with the death of a loved one too. So, it is no wonder that deathcare seeks to deal with the corpse as quickly as possible in the face of these fears. Out of sight, out of mind.
I think that I have made significant progress in allaying my own anxieties towards death at this stage, though. Death is an inevitable part of life. There is only so much we can do to keep it at bay. Even then, there is always the possibility of accidents and events beyond our control leading to our demise. I’ve mentioned Michel de Montaigne before, but the reason I read his essays in the first place was to tackle this fear of death. In his essay To Philosophise is to Learn How to Die, he asserts that “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.” After these past few years of thought, I feel that I am now satisfied with this statement and am no longer anxious about my own death. So, reading From Here to Eternity did not do much more for me in that respect. Rather, the value that I derived from Doughty’s book is the idea that those who are already dead are not to be feared. Funerals do not have to be so detached and rushed; dead bodies are not dangerous.
Reading the book did not convince me that corpses continue to live on beyond death or that the ñatitas actually possess spiritual power. But it did reveal to me that these approaches to death in other cultures are not unusual practices. It isn’t much stranger to celebrate holidays for the dead than to embalm bodies and separate them from the living with three panes of glass. Such celebrations and rituals do, however, bring more intimacy to the grieving process and help to allay the fear of death for many people across the world. It is okay to take your time with handling death. It is okay to grieve. It is okay to make these occasions intimate moments. There is nothing unnatural about dying and it is about time that we come to acknowledge this in Western culture.
Michel de Montaigne (1993), The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated from French by M.A. Screech, Penguin Classics, Australia
Cave, S., (2012) Immortality: The quest to live forever and how it drives civilization, Crown, United States