A wall of special skulls, called Natitas, in La Paz, Bolivia, aid their devotees in love, protection and finances. (Caitlin Doughty)

In some Indonesian villages, families live with and care for the bodies of their loved ones for months or years after they die. In Japan, relatives of the deceased use chopsticks to remove large bone fragments from cremated ashes. In Mexico, mummified babies and children were once revered, and people would hold parties and games for them.

If those practices sound alarming, Caitlin Doughty would like to remind you that injecting a body with formaldehyde might seem appalling to people in some parts of the world. Recently, she crisscrossed the globe looking at how diverse, and even healing, death can be. Her new book, “From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death,” published this month, underlines how subjective our views on death are.

Doughty, 33, is a mortician in Los Angeles but, as she says, “that doesn’t really describe it.” She is an activist for a view of death that offers a lot more choices than Americans have traditionally been given. Doughty believes that what happens after a person dies can be much more personal, transcendent, and comforting than the mainstream funeral industry would have us believe.

By exploring death rituals around the world, her goal was to open the door to new possibilities.

“Even things that we find strange or repulsive or disrespectful can actually be quite beautiful when you break them down and tell the stories,” she said. “I was hoping to prove that change is possible and that even when I’m standing there with a son brushing off his father’s mummified corpse or I’m seeing a body being pulled off a compost pile, there’s so much respect there and it’s such a human process. You could be surrounded by mummies and still feel completely comfortable … because there are children running around and playing and laughing and it just feels like a family has gotten together to be happy and perform this ritual.”

Caitlin Doughty’s new book explores death rituals across the world. (Mara Zehler)

Doughty, who has written a memoir about her profession and also hosts “Ask A Mortician,” a series of video shorts that discuss such phenomena as coffin births (when built-up gases cause a recently deceased pregnant woman’s body to expel a fetus) and what happened to the bodies of those who died on the Titanic. Some of the videos boast hundreds of thousands of views, perhaps testimony to a transformation Doughty says is underway as more Americans consider alternatives to the standard funeral package.

“People are going to funeral homes and going to ‘traditional’ services and they’re more and more not satisfied with them,” she said. “They see Mom and she looks kind of waxen, and they’re like, ‘This isn’t for me. There must be another way.’ ”

This attitude reflects a generational change, she said. “The people who are really dying right now are in their 80s and 90s, the Greatest Generation. I think they’re going to be the last generation to embrace the embalming the body, putting it on display, the wake, the Catholic ritual. Baby boomers, Generation X and Millennials are more open to these new ideas, to these green ideas, to these participatory ideas.”

The new ideas include allowing loved ones to attend a cremation, or doing a water cremation, in which the body is dissolved in very hot water and lye (avoiding the use of natural gas and the release of toxins).

Doughty got interested in death as a child after witnessing another child suffer a fall that was likely fatal. The experience made her afraid of death; she confronted her fear by entering a field in which death is commonplace.

But once there, she felt something was missing.

Family members clean the mummified body of a relative in Indonesia. (Caitlin Doughty)

“It was always my instinct that we weren’t doing enough for our families, that we weren’t giving them enough emotional space to really grieve and have feelings,” she said. “Nothing makes me more angry when I hear about someone asking a funeral director, ‘Do you think that I could come in and fix Mom’s hair and fix Mom’s lipstick, because she liked to wear it this way,’ and they say no. It’s like their self-esteem is so wrapped up in them being the professionals.”

By contrast, many other cultures encourage intimate physical contact with the deceased, resulting in a warmer, less forbidding experience. “When you’re in Mexico the whole cemetery is just glowing as they interact with the memories of the dead,” she said.

For the book she also traveled within the United States to visit people who are promoting alternative methods, such as a North Carolina group that experiments with composting human remains and a mobile funeral pyre operation in Colorado.

To Doughty there’s no right or wrong way to do things, including the standard American way, but she would like people to have access to a wider range of choices — such as burying a loved one’s remains on private property, or setting them on a mountaintop for the vultures.

“These things aren’t available and you should be angry about that, because the American funeral system has a lobby,” she said. “There are regulations in place that make it incredibly hard to enter the funeral industry or have any new type of disposition become available.”

Recently, the cremation rate surpassed the burial rate in the United States for the first time. Still, embalming, which is particularly lucrative for funeral homes, is more common here than in any other country, and it is often done even when a body is going to be cremated, Doughty said. Twenty-nine states require funeral homes to be ready to embalm, meaning that even if a mortician serves only clients who don’t embalm, such as Muslims, “the state is going to say, ‘You need to go to mortician school and set up a $100,000 embalming room.’ ”

For herself, Doughty wants to be buried close to the surface of the earth, “in that really rich topsoil full of microbes and fungi. I want my body to decompose. As women we’re taught to be contained and clean and not have control over our bodies. … There’s something about the messiness of the process — the oozing and stretching out into the dirt and the earth, and that my organic matter is merging with other organic matter, that is what’s really attractive to me and really brings me comfort.”


A woman sleeps by altars she prepared for her family for the Day of the Dead in Janitzio, Mexico. (Caitlin Doughty)