Siena Iwasaki Milbauer photo by Sarah Whiting
Siena Iwasaki Milbauer photo by Sarah Whiting

written by Siena Iwasaki Milbauer

After roaming the globe to learn about death rituals, Caitlin Doughty shared her experiences in “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.”

It was one of several books I perused this past month as my contribution to the “Endings” theme of Minnesota Women’s Press.

Reading a book by a mortician was not something I thought would be funny and moving — but it was. As a naturally curious, un-squeamish person, I found it strangely enjoyable to learn about attempts to compost bodies as a solution to toxic pollution caused by embalming, or about the use of skulls as icons to confer blessings.

Culturally, I experience a bit of whiplash around the topic of death. I am the child of a mother born and raised in Japan — where death is talked about continuously. I also am the child of a father who is sprung from the bowels of the American Midwest, where the cultural approach tends to be: “Death is unpleasant, let’s never talk about that.”

Since I grew up in the Midwest, you would think I would be inclined toward the avoidance approach to death, but I have gravitated more towards Japanese views. I appreciate the open discussion in Japanese culture, even if the discussion occasionally veers into extremely romanticized territory.

Being exposed to different perspectives on death has allowed me to have a relatively balanced and open attitude towards mortality. I believe that, as a result, I have developed a flexible and resilient approach toward grieving. For those who don’t have this exposure woven into their families, a book like “From Here to Eternity” could be a good read.

More than anything, it is Doughty’s respectful and open approach that sets the book apart. Don’t let the subtitle mislead you. The journey and book are not about finding a singular way of dying well, but about celebrating the many diverse ways people have dealt with an inevitability. 

For example, Doughty writes about the common, community-based rituals that offer a deeply personal approach to handling the body of a deceased person. This contrasts with the commercialized funeral industry of the U.S., which has grown to a hands-off process that costs families roughly $8,000 per loved one.

There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for death. Each person is different, each encounter with mortality is unique, and death itself is full of paradoxes. It can come torturously slow or shockingly fast. It provokes peace and panic. It can be unthinkably horrific or exquisitely beautiful, especially in the way it gives meaning to each moment we are alive.

When a person can discuss death in a thoughtful way, without wanting to hide under the covers, I think that is a healthy relationship with death. In my view, any ritual, practice, or belief that brings grace to this process should be celebrated and respected as the extraordinary achievement that it is.

I think people of all ages in Minnesota, and in the U.S. in general — with a largely “deny, deny, don’t engage” approach toward death — might learn a few things from other cultures.

Siena Iwasaki Milbauer is a community engagement reporter with Minnesota Women’s Press. She highly recommends the 1954 film “Sansho the Bailiff” as a satisfying spectacle of the Japanese romanticism of death.