I stopped blogging for more than a year due to being mired in grief over the loss of two close family members. The mental and emotional fog of my grief finally lifted several days before one of my best friends lost his battle with cancer. His death was not sudden, which allowed those of us who love him to adjust to the idea he would not be in our lives much longer. Knowing his death was imminent did not lessen my heartbreak or keep the grief fog at bay. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to tell my friend how important he is to me and what his being in my life for the last two decades has truly meant to me.
During my grief-fueled writing hiatus, I read several books about death, the American funeral industry, cremation, burials and its alternatives, and cadavers. While this sounds odd and perhaps crazy to some people, I was on the hunt for information about how other cultures deal with death, mourning, grief, and their actual physical dead. My exposure to Midwestern open-casket funerals had left me feeling hollow and uncertain about my own emotions regarding death.
I wanted to find some semblance of logic in the processes of dying and of dealing with the physical dead since death itself is unpredictable and wildly emotional. No two people deal with the emotional fallout of grief in the same way yet an entire community may deal with their dead in the same physical manner. This juxtaposition peeked my curiosity and set me on my reading journey.
The view from the crematorium
One of the books I read during my hiatus was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a frank and outstanding first book by mortician Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” online fame. Doughty runs an alternative funeral home in Los Angeles, California, called Undertaking LA. In 2011, Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists. This group is credited with helping to create the death positive movement, which encourages people to speak openly about dying, death, and corpses.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is about Doughty’s first foray into working at a crematorium in California and everything that cremation entails. She touches on how other cultures view and deal with death, of how there is an impersonal gap for the deceased’s family during the American cremation process, and how swiftly American funeral home employees remove a deceased loved one from his or her home while telling the family the sudden removal is for public health and safety. Doughty argues that the families of the deceased should be given time to say goodbye to their loved ones without being rushed and, if the families wish, to wash the body or prepare it for burial or cremation as some cultures outside the United States still do today.
One of the biggest takeaways for me from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is how the Wari’ tribe of the Brazilian Amazon ate their dead in funerary rituals. This death ritual was the furthest idea from a satin-lined coffin housing an embalmed body in a funeral home while a member of the clergy delivered a message about death, dying, and the afterlife to assembled mourners that I came across in my readings, which may be why I was drawn to this small bit in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
The terrain of the Amazon does not easily lend itself to below-ground burials such as those performed in the United States, which may be one reason why the Wari’ originally began to eat their dead. In additional, as a ritual, funerary cannibalism is full of meaning for those involved in the process.
Without a climate controlled environment, such as a morgue, to slow down the decomposition process, the body of the deceased Wari’ tribe member would become quite putrid in the humid environment of the Amazon. Those closest to the deceased would prepare, cook, and then consume the body using small utensils, which signified this type of cannibalism was an unpleasant ritual for the Wari’. At times, those partaking in this ritual would excuse themselves in order to vomit away from the other tribe members and would then return to continue to consume the flesh of the dead. This symbolic and physical consumption took several hours to conclude.
After the ritual cannibalism was finished, the house and belongings of the deceased were set on fire and allowed to burn to the ground, which essentially left the deceased person’s family homeless. The tribe would then help the family rebuild their home and restart their lives. This rebuilding was a way to communicate that it was not just the family who suffered a loss; it was the entire village suffering, grieving, and then healing as one.
The Wari’ no longer practice funerary cannibalism because of the unsought influence of Christian missionaries in the 1960s who disagreed with the Wari’ ways and petitioned the Brazilian government to step in to stop these rituals.
While the thought of funerary cannibalism is probably distressing to a great deal of North Americans, I appreciate the Wari’ tradition because it left no uncertainty as to the physical fate of the dead and it connected the entire tribe in the grieving process. In addition, this manner of dealing with the dead embraced a practical and logical solution unique to the geographical area of the Wari’. Thus, I went on another knowledge quest to discover alternatives to North American open-casket funerals and burials.
Knowing there are people, such as Doughty, who are investing their time and energy into more positive and less grief-focused methods of burial and non-burial alternatives gives me great comfort. I now feel empowered to request that my loved ones donate my body to science before placing my cremated remains in an outdoor urn in order to nourish a tree sapling that will hopefully grow into a beautiful mature tree one day. I want my friends and family to gather and share their stories and their greatest memories of me and my life. I don’t want them to be mired down in a grief fog unable to function in the face of their loss like I have done recently in response to my own grief.
For me, being able to make this request for myself has made death more approachable and less of a frightening bogeyman. While I am sad that I have lost a dear friend who gave me shelter from the storm and who encouraged me to express myself, I choose to write about the bizarre topics he and I talked about and to celebrate my friend’s life by sharing stories and memories of him instead of weeping at the mention of his name.