Spoilers: You’re going to die.
That’s not a healthy thing to think about, or at least it isn’t healthy to think about with too much frequency. But it’s also not healthy to never think about it or be in denial of the fact, and the exact balancing act of how much to think about it is not something many of us are aware of. The west has it worse, as the west has kind of sanitized death out of everyday life to a frightening degree1. But it is not the case that this poor relationship to death is universal.
In From Here to Eternity Caitlin Daughty fights back against all that by engaging in an act of amateur anthropology and showing us the variety of ways in which different societies (and societal subsects) not only relate to their deceased, but also the aftercare of their deceased and how they relate to it. It shows us a wide variety of different places and idea, going on a journey that makes us think about our own traditions, as well as what it means for us to commune with our deceased in some meaningful way.
This was a pretty engaging and easy read, and yet I felt a strange feeling reading this book. At first I wasn’t able to put my finger on it, but as I got towards the end of the book my unease with it became increasingly clear. The book made little sense to me for some pretty important personal reasons. My parents (by accident, I think) pretty much raised me without many traditions of any kind. I know that much of my family is buried, but I have no real idea where to within a range of one hundred feet. Death as a link to one’s past is something that just doesn’t make much sense to me at a personal level. I wouldn’t exactly call my experience common – infact I think it is pretty much the opposite. However I think it is somewhat representational of what has happened in the west with people’s understanding of the idea of death. People are becoming increasingly detached with the idea of death, and I only found myself taking it to a pretty deep extreme (complete detachment). It made me wonder to what extent any of that is healthy. How will I want to die? What does that mean now, when I find myself embracing the prospect of being alone for the whole of my life. What are my parents doing? Will I have any kind of meaningful relationship with them once they are gone? As it is, I can’t see myself ever visiting their graves…
In short, this book made me think about some pretty complicated subject matters in some pretty complicated ways. And that should be worth something.
1I get this. The informal mission of the western world is to sanitize quotidian life from all the things the we consider bad or generally unpleasant. While this mission is good it sometimes goes way too far, as is evidenced by the existence of things like hand sanitizer. The west’s relationship with death, born out of religious fear, is somewhat similar to that.