Mortician Explores Cultures' Many Paths For 'Sacred Transition' Of Death

Oct 15, 2017
Originally published on October 15, 2017 1:31 pm

When Sandra Daugherty's father died unexpectedly at 73, there was no plan. The only thing the family knew was what Grady Ross Daugherty didn't want.

"He was really freaked out about cement liners," said Sandra. "Like this Tupperware container that you get placed in, in the ground. He hated the idea of that. But other than that no wishes. He would say just surprise me. With a twinkle in his eye."

She decided not to choose a standard funeral.

"Every funeral I've ever gone to was awful, like the funeral parlor smell, and the way the casket looks and the fake flowers. It just always felt tacky and kind of empty."

So the family opted to go green. They went to a small funeral home in East Hollywood called Undertaking LA that offers alternatives. For one, it doesn't recommend embalming. And it offers caskets that are more like baskets, made of wicker or sea grass, and designed to decompose quickly, along with the body. Sandra Daugherty says it was exactly what she wanted. "My dad, it's been two months and three days since he was buried. And I know he is already back to the universe."

As it happens, the owner of Undertaking LA is passionate about delivering loved ones to the great beyond in just the right way. Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and the author of the book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. It's something of a travelogue of death rituals. And one thing she found in compiling the stories in the book was that rituals that are deeply meaningful in one culture are often viewed with a mix of horror and fascination by another.

She opens her book with an example that dates back to Canada in the 1600s. A French priest recorded what he observed among the Wendat People.

"They would wrap the dead in beaver robes on a scaffold and after a certain amount of time they would take them down and remove the flesh from the bones to put them in a large communal burial pit. One things that was interesting — he came to convert the indigenous people, but even he could see how much love and tenderness was put toward this process. As they were wrapping the bones to put them in the communal burial pit, he said, 'Isn't this an example to inspire Christians?' And then he went on to say, of course they should still be Christians, it's barbaric and savage what they do."

And in Japan, Doughty learned of a cremation ritual called kotsuage.

"Here in America when we pull out the bones after a cremation we grind them down in a machine called the cremulator to the ashes we know in a scattering or in an urn," Doughty said. "But in Japan, they pull out the full skeletonized body from the cremation machine and the family stands around it with chopsticks. Starting at the feet they pull the bones individually and place them in the urn."

It's a delicate ritual, and intimate.

And hard to imagine here in the United States where, just a generation ago, cremation was practically forbidden. It has long been against Jewish law. And it wasn't until 1963 that the Vatican allowed Catholics to be cremated, with restrictions.

"People were horrified by cremation," Doughty explained. "They thought it was burning your friend. And you can have burning as this idea of just, you know, hell. And there's holocaust imagery, and there was just such a resistance to adopting cremation."

That has changed dramatically. In 1980, only 6 percent of Americans were cremated. Now, just a generation later, 50 percent of Americans are choosing cremation. But unlike the intimacy of the experience in Japan, cremation in the U.S. is still quite industrial.

That's one reason why, when we visited Undertaking LA, we were the rare guests that Caitlin Doughty ushered into the brick, factory-like space that contains two cremation machines running at full blast. There, we met Mike Munoz, the crematory operator, who handles first the bodies, and then the ashes. At 22 years old, he is committed to spending his life caring for the dead. He offered to open the door to show us one cremation that was nearly complete. It was a surprisingly peaceful sight: just a hint of bones, white as lace, lit by slowly undulating flames. "It's beautiful," said Doughty. "You don't want to be the one who says a cremating body is beautiful, but cultures all around the world have open air pyres because it's a sacred transition for many people."

Caitlin Doughty, is just 32, but is accustomed to thinking ahead. She wants a green burial. Dust to dust. Unless there's a way to be laid out above ground.

"The model for this is the Tibetan sky burial, where when someone dies they are laid out to be eaten by vultures. Hence the name "sky burial." The Buddhist idea is that your body isn't worth anything to you anymore, so why are you trying to hold on to it? Why don't you give it back to other animals to take up into the sky? And I think that's gorgeous."

Caitlin Doughty's new book is From Here To Eternity: Traveling The World To Find The Good Death.

Anny Celsi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We are going to go now "From Here To Eternity," a journey through death rituals led by mortician Caitlin Doughty. For her new book, she collected stories and histories of how cultures send their beloved off to the great beyond. Doughty owns a small funeral home called Undertaking LA. She specializes in offering alternatives to what's come to be the standard American funeral, which is what attracted a young woman whose father died unexpectedly.

SANDRA: My father's name was Grady Ross Daugherty. And he was buried a day before his 73rd birthday.

MONTAGNE: And his daughter Sandra sought out Undertaking LA in hopes of getting something different.

SANDRA: Every funeral I've ever been to has just been awful - awful because of the death and the loss and the sadness but also just awful - like, the funeral parlor smell and the way the casket looks and the fake flowers. It just always felt really tacky and kind of just empty. Like, I never - I've never gotten anything out of a funeral.

MONTAGNE: And when it came to burying her beloved father, Sandra only knew one thing he did not want.

SANDRA: I knew that he was really freaked out about cement liners - like, this Tupperware container you get placed in when you die in the ground. He hated the idea of that. But other than that, no. No wishes. Like, literally, he would say just, surprise me with a little twinkle in his eye, you know?

MONTAGNE: So Sandra opted to go the green route. They didn't embalm him. And instead of a fancy casket, the family placed her father in one of the ecofriendly wicker coffins offered at Undertaking LA along with ones made of seagrass, both designed to decompose quickly along with the body.

SANDRA: My dad - I mean, he - it's been two months and three days since he was buried. And I know he is, you know, back to the universe.

MONTAGNE: Hi. Hello.

CAITLIN DOUGHTY: Welcome.

MONTAGNE: Hi.

DOUGHTY: Hi, I'm Caitlin.

MONTAGNE: Hi, I'm Renee.

DOUGHTY: Come on in.

MONTAGNE: Nice to meet you.

On a recent day, we joined Caitlin Doughty in an industrial part of Los Angeles at her crematory.

DOUGHTY: And it's just a small chapel, a preparation room and a crematory with two cremation machines. Come on in.

MONTAGNE: And while cremations were taking place a few feet away, we settled down for a conversation about the various ways people care for their dead. One thing Doughty found in writing her book - rituals that are deeply meaningful in one culture are often viewed with a mix of horror and fascination by another. One example dates to Canada in the 1600's, when a French priest recorded what he found among the Wendat people.

DOUGHTY: They would put their dead, wrapped in beaver robes, on a scaffold. And after a certain amount of time, they would take them down and remove the flesh from the bones to put them in a large communal burial pit. And you didn't know what each person was going to look like when you unwrapped them. You might have a newly fresh deceased person. You might have a sort of mummified body. Or you might have a body that was essentially just thin, papery flesh that you could remove fairly quickly.

And this cardinal - this French cardinal - saw it happening. And his reaction was so interesting because he came to convert the indigenous people. But even he could see how much love and tenderness was put toward this process, as - even as they were wrapping the bones to put them in the communal burial pit, he said, isn't this an example to inspire Christians? And then he went on to say, of course, they should still be Christian. It's barbaric and savage what they do. But isn't it lovely?

MONTAGNE: In today's world, there are still plenty of death rituals that could seem strange and surprising. For her book, Caitlin Doughty traveled to a remote village in Indonesia where the dead stay at home with the living, mummified until a proper funeral can be arranged - sometimes for years. She witnessed sky burials in the mountains of Tibet. She met women in Bolivia who keep human skulls called natitas in their homes, believed to provide direct access to the divine. And in Japan, she learned of a long-time cremation tradition.

DOUGHTY: There's a ritual called the kotsuage. And here in America, when we pull out the bones after a cremation, we grind them down in a machine called the cremulator to the ashes that we know, you know, in a scattering or that's in an urn. But in Japan, traditionally, they don't do that. They pull out the full skeletonized body from the cremation machine. And the family stands around it with chopsticks. And starting at the feet, they pull the bones individually and place them in the urn. So it's a completely interactive family ritual even after the cremation takes place.

MONTAGNE: And very delicate.

DOUGHTY: Very delicate.

MONTAGNE: It sounds elegant, actually.

DOUGHTY: And people even here want the bones. They ask, can I have my mom's bones back? I don't want the sand-like cremated remains. And in California, it says that we're legally required to grind them down into, quote, "nonidentifiable bone fragments."

MONTAGNE: And the fact is here in America, just a generation ago, cremation was seriously frowned upon. It's long been against Jewish law. And it wasn't until 1963 that the Vatican allowed Catholics to be cremated with restrictions.

DOUGHTY: People were horrified by cremation. They thought it was burning your friend. And you can have burning as this idea of just, you know, hell. And there's Holocaust imagery. And there was just such a resistance to, especially in America, adopting cremation. And that's really changing.

MONTAGNE: As recently as 1980, only 6 percent of Americans were cremated. As of this year, 50 percent of Americans are choosing cremation. But unlike the intimacy of that experience in Japan, cremation in America is still quite industrial. That's one reason why I am the rare guest that Caitlin Doughty leads into the vast, brick-factory-like space that contains the two cremation machines running at 1,800 degrees.

DOUGHTY: And that's Mike. He's our crematory operator.

MONTAGNE: Mike Munoz handles first the bodies and then the ashes. At 22 years old, he is already committed to spending his life caring for the dead.

MIKE MUNOZ: It's not an ordinary job. So you have to put, you know, your care into the person. You want to make sure they get as much as possible from the family member. You don't want to drop any of the cremated remains.

MONTAGNE: And sounds like you want to be respectful.

MUNOZ: Yes, definitely.

MONTAGNE: And after a few moments pondering the cremation machines - shiny metal, very hot, not entirely unfriendly - Mike Munoz invites me to look in at a cremation that's nearly over.

MUNOZ: So, basically, we're just looking inside to see where the body is and how much longer it needs. So right there, about another 30 minutes, and it'll be complete.

MONTAGNE: A little bit. I saw - you can see sort of the - just the last ends of the bones.

MUNOZ: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Seeing just the very top of a very white, ashy skull. It was sort of quiet.

DOUGHTY: It is. It's beautiful. You know, you don't want to be the one who says that a cremating body is beautiful. But cultures all around the world have open air pyres because it's a beautiful transition of dead body to ash and bone. It's a sacred transition for many people.

MONTAGNE: As I gathered myself to leave the crematory, I did have one last question for Caitlin.

What about you? Have you got a big plan for yourself. I mean, you're young. You're in your 30s.

DOUGHTY: (Laughter) But you can die at any time.

MONTAGNE: This is true. You would know that.

DOUGHTY: I don't - as of right now, I would like to be naturally buried. But, eventually, I hope that there's a way that I could be laid out above ground for animals. The model for this is the Tibetan sky burial, where, when someone dies, they are laid out to be eaten by vultures. The Buddhist idea behind this is that your body isn't worth anything to you anymore. Why are you trying to hold on to it? Why don't you give it back to other animals to do with it as they please and to take into the sky? And I think that's gorgeous.

MONTAGNE: Caitlin Doughty is a mortician. We spoke to her at her crematory in Los Angeles. Her new book is "From Here To Eternity: Traveling The World To Find The Good Death."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FROM HERE TO ETERNITY")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) You vowed your love from here to eternity, a love so true it never would die. You gave your lips, gave them so willingly. How could I know... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.