A death nearly always hurts someone, and those in mourning tend to grasp onto whatever small comforts they can to ease the pain. One such panacea about laying a loved one to rest is that, barring some kind of zombie apocalypse situation, we can be reasonably certain that they’ll still be there — right where we leave them — forever. There’s a sense of finality, and in that, of closure, to the kind of corpse disposal provided by the modern American death industry; whether one has opted for traditional burial or cremation — still the two most prevalent methods — there is tangible proof that, short of said undead uprising, they’re not coming back.
Humans have been burying their dead for at least 100,000 years, and the concept of consigning our dead to a “final resting place” has long been a cornerstone of various religions and cultures; whether the intent has been to keep our dearly departed safe on the journey to the afterlife, or to keep the living safe from them, has varied depending on who’s doing the consigning. It may surprise those accustomed to the modern American way of death that our sanitized, keep-’em-at-arms’-length approach to grave matters isn’t the global golden standard, but rather a relatively modern invention. As mortician and death positivity advocate Caitlin Doughty lays out in her new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, the squeamishness with which many Americans treat death and dying is fairly anomalous within the global cultural framework. “It’s from the early 20th century that this started to happen, that we started to be so removed from death,” she tells me. “It’s a very recent thing, [but] we’ve dug ourselves in deep.”
In the book, Doughty — who lives in Los Angeles and runs a progressive funeral home, Undertaking LA — travels to a number of far-flung locations to observe (and, when invited, participate in) death rituals. That some readers may find the rites she describes to be shocking or even sacrilegious proves a point Doughty uses to open the book, hinged upon a Herodotus quote about cannibalism: that, since time immemorial, different tribes and cultures have viewed unfamiliar death rituals with suspicion, if not outright revulsion. Doughty chalks this attitude up to a variety of factors, from religious convictions to imperialist racism to “a belief in the unique nobility of one’s culture.” She concludes, “We consider death rituals savage only when they don’t match our own,” and part of her stated mission for From Here to Eternity is to show that, whether you’re sealing your aunt in a lead-lined coffin or sleeping in a bed alongside your granddad’s mummified corpse, the same underlying emotional, spiritual, and community connections are at work. It’s all very much in line with the core tenets laid out by The Order of the Good Death, a collective of death industry professionals she founded in 2010 that aims to combat the culture of silence feeding America’s death phobia.
We follow Doughty as she visits a body farm in North Carolina, meets the freshly exhumed, washed, and finely-dressed relatives of indigenous Torajan villagers in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi district during their annual MaiNene ceremony, and pays her respects to a child mummy in Guanajuato, Mexico while exploring the commercialization of the Día de los Muertos.
She is introduced to lavishly decorated devotional skulls during Bolivia’s Dia de las Ñatitas, receives a crash course in “grave recycling” in Barcelona, and bears witness to a juniper-scented cremation in Crestone, Colorado, home to the only open air funeral pyre in the Western World. One of the most poignant moments in the book appears when Doughty opens up about her own post-life wishes, especially how she deals with the weight of knowing she cannot fulfill them — to live her best death, as it were — due to potential illegality and impracticality.
She wants a sky burial (a traditionally Tibetan funeral practice wherein a body is left on a mountain or raised platform outside to decompose and be devoured by carrion birds), which is not an option in the United States (or anywhere else, aside from Tibet and, to a lesser extent, China and Mongolia), but she’s made peace with her backup plan: green burial, in which a body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and buried in a designated park or woodland area. Doughty takes comfort in the idea of becoming compost, just like the Indonesian family who shares a hut with the dry remains of their aunt Sanda, or the Japanese families she witnesses gracefully transfer bone fragments from a pile of their loved one’s cremated ash into a special urn using metal chopsticks in a practice called kotsuage.
One of the dominant themes Doughty explores is just how mobile a corpse can be — even without breath in its lungs or shoes on its feet. Any examination of burial that assumes the finality of any given individual’s proscribed resting place must at some point address the problem of what to do when the dead refuse to stay buried — or aren’t given the option to do so. Simply put, certain corpses throughout history have racked up some serious mileage.
In medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris’ riveting new book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, she lays out the fascinating tale of Dr. Joseph Lister, a pioneering British surgeon and pioneer in preventive medicine whose early embrace of germ theory, antiseptic medicine, and promotion of sterile surgery earned him the distinction of being known as “The Father of Modern Surgery.” Fitzharris — who is also a member of the Order of the Good Death — draws the reader into the fetid, blood-splattered world of Victorian medicine with her endless depth of knowledge and considerable aplomb, shining a lantern on a shadowy time period populated by maverick surgeons, gangrenous bodies, warring doctors… and body-snatchers.
The reality of life — and death — in a 19th century hospital was that the latter far outnumbered the former, whether in the wretchedly filthy hospital wards teeming with vermin, or in the “dead house”: a stinking chamber full of cadavers in various states of decomposition wherein medical students sharpened their surgical and anatomical skills. Unfortunately for the living, the students often left the dead house covered in blood, guts, and other effluvia, often tracking these infectious agents straight to their hapless patients’ bedsides. In their efforts to gain a greater understanding of the mysteries held within dead bodies, they inadvertently created more.
The swelling ranks of the medical profession in Victorian England meant there was always a need for more cadavers, but until the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, there was no legal way to acquire them. The hospital’s own high turnover rate kept the local undertakers busy, but like so many of their predecessors, the medical teaching staff of this era had to turn to other sources to supply their paying students with dissectible bodies: the resurrection men.
“The words ‘body-snatcher’ conjure up all kinds of sordid images: crude men with fingernails caked in dirt; corpses crammed into sacks, but the truth is that they are an important and integral part of our medical history as they supplied bodies to medical schools in earlier periods,” Fitzharris tells me. Body-snatchers — also known as “resurrection men” or “resurrectionists,” like the famed Scottish duo Burke and Hare, who saved themselves the trouble of digging by simply murdering people outright — haunted local cemeteries, waiting for their chance to strike. Once the opportunity presented itself, these men would swiftly dig up a coffin, drag its resident out by the neck with a rope, then move on to the next one. According to Fitzharris, they could snatch as many as six bodies in one night, then sell them to medical schools for a pretty penny. They also predominantly preyed on the poor, who couldn’t afford the kind of protections that the richer dead enjoyed.
“The general population abhorred body-snatchers and the surgeons who employed them, and went to great lengths to prevent their loved ones from ending up on the dissection table,” she explains. “Coffin collars were fixed around the necks of a corpse and bolted to the bottom of a coffin, making it nearly impossible to remove the body from its grave. Cemetery guns, as well, were designed to keep body snatchers at bay. These were set up at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. Those unfortunate enough to stumble upon one in the dead of night may find themselves in a grave of their own.”
This wasn’t a uniquely British phenomenon, either; American medical schools relied on body-snatching as well, and American resurrectionists also focused on pillaging the graves of the poor as well as Black cemeteries. People were understandably displeased by the practice; in one instance, a stolen corpse even led to a riot that set the streets of New York City alight. In 1788, a group of medical students stopped mid-dissection to wave a corpse’s arm out the window at a young black boy outside, taunting the child by telling him it belonged to his mother. Unbeknownst to them, the boy’s mother had actually died recently, so when the boy ran home to tell his father, they rushed to the mother’s grave — only to find it vacant. The father amassed a mob of angry citizens who were sick of fearing for their loved ones’ afterlives and stormed the hospital. The horrors they found inside led to a citywide riot that only ended when a militia was called in to quell the unrest.
Suffice it to say, most people prefer to know where their deceased relatives are and what kind of shape they’re in, whether that means they’re propped up in the living room at home or floating piecemeal in the Pacific Ocean. For New York author Thomas Mira y Lopez, though, knowing the exact coordinates of his father’s grave is less important than locating the man’s memory, which has found a second life in an Ohio buckeye his father nursed to life outside their holiday home in rural Pennsylvania. A stately horse chestnut in Central Park — overlooked by the Mount Sinai hospital where his father both worked and died — was bought by Lopez’s mother after Lopez Senior passed, and complicates Lopez’s own sense of place — of where his father really is.
In his debut, The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead, Lopez strings together a collection of essays that span history, myth, and memoir to detail his own personal travels in the lands of the dead. Cultivating an interest in the various ways we lay our dead to rest helps him deal with the grief of unexpectedly losing a father he wishes he’d known better. Lopez embarks on a surreal journey that takes him far and wide, from his own family burial plot outside Rio de Janeiro to his mother’s cluttered apartment. Both Lopez and Doughty have personal reasons behind their pilgrimages, but while Doughty ultimately seeks wisdom on how to change the American way of death as a whole, Lopez’s intent is more intimate; his search for understanding dulls his pain and ultimately helps him find his own place to mourn.
The actual places he visits are personal to him, as well; it’s less of an adventure than an excavation of his own past. He’s living in Rome when he gets the call about his father’s deteriorating condition; in the book, he reflects on his visiting the ancient Catacombs of Priscilla, which are being devoured by hostile bacteria, with his depressed Italian roommate. At home in Arizona, he makes forays to Acor, the world’s largest cryonics institute, to learn about living forever, and to what’s left of National Cemetery, a dilapidated 19th century graveyard buried by modern development and the Sonoran desert, to look for a great-grandfather who does not exist. When considering the burial rites of ancient Egypt, he remembers a conversation with his mother, who tells him she wants nothing more than to be packed away in a climate-controlled Manhattan storage unit when she passes, eternally flanked by her treasures like a pharaoh in his tomb. Every step of Lopez’s journey brings death right back to his own doorstep. Although he does not stop for death, death kindly waits for him.
Though the last of the resurrection men has long since passed into his own (undisturbed?) afterlife, these authors show that the concept of a final resting place is still as amorphous and uncertain as it ever was. The body trade is still alive and well, as a recent Reuters investigation unearthed, and donating one’s body to medical science is now seen as altruistic, rather than an invitation to eternal damnation. Every old city with eyes to the future runs the risk of inadvertently exhuming a mass grave or a plague pit with each new construction project, and federal infrastructure projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline continue to threaten and desecrate sacred Native American burial grounds across the country. Perhaps it’s more fitting to say that the dead are never truly at rest — and the living will just have to deal with that as best we can.