Burn, Mummify, Compost—Different Ways to Treat the Dead

A mortician travels the world in search of a 'good death.'

Everyone has to die. Death is one of the few, truly universal experiences shared by people of all races, cultures, and creeds. And the way in which different cultures tend to their dead is as varied, and as colourful, as humanity itself. Yet in the United States, real death—not the kind we see daily on our televisions—has been almost entirely hidden from sight. [Meet the people who live with the corpses of their dead family members.]

Writer and mortician Caitlin Doughty believes that attitudes toward death are changing. For her new book, From Here to Eternity, she travelled the world in search of what she calls a “good death.” She brought back tales of a communal funeral pyre in Colorado, an island in Indonesia where the mummified corpses of loved ones are kept in the house, and a “body farm” in North Carolina where corpses are turned into compost.

Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Doughty explains why it is often funeral homes, not laws, which govern the rites surrounding death in America; why she is such a fan of Japan’s “corpse hotels”; and why, when she dies, she would like her body to be consumed by wild animals.

COURTESY OF W.W. NORTON AND COMPANY

Caitlin, you are the first, and I suspect will be the last, funeral director to be featured on Book Talk. Tell us about your day job—and how you are trying to change the rituals surrounding death and burial in the U.S.

I own a small, non-profit funeral home in Los Angeles called Undertaking LA. The idea behind it is to offer families the one thing they don’t tend to get at other funeral homes, which is involved in the process. The standard American model of the funeral home is, the person dies, the funeral home sweeps in, takes the body away, ne’er to be seen again unless they present it back to the family in makeup and a suit.

What we’re trying to do is say, “Hey, how do you want to be involved in the process?” Do you want to just keep Dad at home and we’ll pick him up in a day or two? Do you want to come in and help us dress the body and help lay the body out for a week? We’re here to help you do that, not to tell you what you have to do with your dead.

You begin the book at an open-air funeral pyre in Colorado. Set the scene for us—and explain why you found this ceremony so inspiring.

As much as I’m inspired by the work my own funeral home does, the fact is, when somebody comes in for a cremation, by necessity it is in a warehouse outside L.A. because that’s where they make us have the crematories. We try and make it a beautiful ceremony for the family, but it’s not connected to nature—it’s loud, industrial, and all crematories are like that.

That’s why it’s so amazing what they’ve been able to do in this small town of Crestone, Colorado. People have this vision of the pyres along the Ganges and it being very visceral, even violent. But that’s not the case at these cremations.

You walk up this hill at dawn under this 180-degree dome of blue sky to the pyre, which is inside these wooden walls, like a labyrinth. When it’s set alight, you never see the body itself catch fire. They use juniper wood, so it’s just pure white smoke twirling up into the sky.

The first 15 minutes or so everybody is silent. Whether you’re secular or religious, you sense this profound transformation. Then something shifts in the crowd, and it feels OK to start speaking or singing or conducting whatever ceremony they’re planning to have.

In America, relatives are generally only allowed very limited, and highly controlled, access to the bodies of their deceased loved ones. That’s not the case in Japan, though. Tell us why you are such a fan of Japan’s “corpse hotels.”

[Laughs] To be clear on that, the only reason they’re allowed limited access is because of the funeral home regulations. It’s completely legal to have access to your dead at all times but a funeral home can say, “We’re not open at this time so you can’t…”

The corpse hotel is called LastTel, which is short for Last Hotel. Cremation is 99 percent in Japan. But sometimes, in a huge city like Tokyo, there aren’t enough machines so it can sometimes take days or a week to have the cremation. In Japan, it’s important to sit, pray, and be with the body, so the Last Hotel is a place where there’s access day and night.

The piece de resistance is the condominium. It’s got futon mats to sleep on, a microwave and shower, the whole condo deal. They then slide your corpse into the room, and the family can be there and hang out with the dead body.

I think this is something that could work in the U.S., where not everyone is happy with the lack of control over their dead. So if someone wants to give me that startup capital—an angel investor for a corpse hotel—I’m 100 percent open. [Laughs]

A funeral pyre burns in Kathmandu, Nepal, for a person who was killed in the 2015 earthquake. - PHOTOGRAPH BY ADAM FERGUSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Japan also has very different attitudes to cremation. Tell us about the ritual of kotsuage and why a pair of chopsticks will come in handy.

[Laughs] This is one of my favourite rituals. In America, after a cremation, we pull out the bones and grind them down in a machine to turn them into ashes. In Japan, they lay out the full skeleton, the family comes in and—starting at the feet then moving up to the head, using chopsticks—they pluck out the bones and put them into an urn. The idea is that the person is walking upright into the urn. They then take the urn home with the bones in it, which is something we’re not allowed to do in California, where the law says the bones must be ground to a uniform consistency.

I equate meaning with ritual action, doing something to complete a task, which is why I am such a proponent of keeping the body at home, washing and dressing the body. The kotsuage ritual is a fantastic example of that. It’s a way to be interactive with the dead body, to feel you are moving through into the reality of the death that happened.

We know Norman Bates, in Psycho, is weird because he keeps his dead Mum in the house. But in Toraja, Indonesia, keeping mummified relatives around is perfectly normal. Describe the Torajan rituals you witnessed—and what it says about their attitudes toward death.

The idea we have of keeping a mummy in the house is that you must be deeply disturbed to do that. But in this place in rural Indonesia they don’t think that the person is dead when they died by our medical definition, when they stop breathing. They think that the dead person is still very much with them, that they can still see, hear, and communicate in some ways with you, so it’s important to do the right thing and keep them present: Bring them food, change their clothes, or lay them out at night in the bed. They accomplish this by mummifying the dead. The traditional way was with teas or oils, like tanning or leatherising an animal. But they now use more modern methods, like formaldehyde.

The whole time we were in the village, there was a body sleeping right next door to us, though we didn’t know it until the last day when we got to go in and visit her. What was important for me to see firsthand was how normal the whole thing felt. It’s a completely normal family of rice farmers, with dogs and chickens, and children playing. It just happens to be that they are keeping the dead in the house.

On the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, friends and family inspect the body of Debora Maupa’, who died in 2009 at age 73. A well-preserved body, mummified with a solution of formaldehyde and water, is thought to bring good fortune. - PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN LEHMANN

In North Carolina, you spent time with a woman described by the New York Times as the person leading the charge “to turn corpses into compost.” Tell us about Katrina Spade and the Urban Death Project.

She’s been a colleague and friend of mine for several years. What she’s saying is that it would be wonderful if everyone could be buried in a beautiful, natural burial ground, but that’s not realistic for everyone in a big city. Cremation is polluting and not the most friendly or eco-friendly way to get rid of our dead en masse.

So, what about a system in an urban environment where you could put your family in a vessel that is made up of wood chips and nitrogen and, after a certain amount of time, the body in there would transform into soil? The soil could then either be used in the community or taken home for your rose garden or whatever you want to do with it.

She’s working with this “body farm,” or human decomposition facility, to test these theories. At the body farm, I was able to see not only a fresh donor body be put into a compost pile but also two of the older bodies uncovered from their compost pile, to see where they were and what they might need to do differently. They use wood and alfalfa chips.

In one case, too much alfalfa had been used so part of the body had mummified because it had wicked so much moisture away from the body. The other body had decomposed down to bone but the bone hadn’t started to decompose because the temperature in the pile hadn’t gotten hot enough. Getting the right amount of moisture, heat, and composting materials in the pile is the big challenge.

Could this spread or will it remain a fringe experiment? The beauty of it is that we don’t know. When modernized, industrial cremation first began it was considered very fringe and weird—the devil’s work. Now, over 50 percent of people in the U.S. do this and even more in Europe. So, it can change and we don’t know yet which of these new ideas is going to take off.

You set off in search of “the good death.” Did you find it? And how did your journey change your view of death—and your own profession?

The term “the good death” goes back thousands of years and I’m not saying that the good death is one certain thing that you’re supposed to figure out and if you don’t have it you’ve failed. What I do think is that, if we don’t have these hard conversations and aren’t creating spaces where people can mourn, it’s never going to happen, especially in the U.S.

I encourage people to have those conversations and figure out how to improve those spaces. It’s not just the family’s task, though. I blame the funeral industry, too. People like me need to continue to push ourselves to create these spaces, so a family can come in, mourn openly, and not feel ashamed or morbid for doing so.

Personally, when I die, I would like to be eaten by animals, like in sky burials in Tibet. I have eaten animals most of my life, though I don’t anymore, and think it’s fair play if they get their turn with me when I die. But because of the current illegality of that in the U.S., I will probably have to settle for a more traditional burial.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lead image: Photographed by Jason Edwards, National Geographic Creative.

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