Women Who Travel Podcast: How other cultures care for their dead – and what we can learn from them
LA: We’re looking elsewhere for meaningful rituals to learn from. Caitlin describes the Japanese ritual of kotsuage, during which she observed a family using special chopsticks to pick bones from the ashes after a cremation. It goes without saying that these types of moments are among the most private, intimate and vulnerable. In order to respectfully witness these private ceremonies, she allows herself to be guided by local researchers.
CD: Some of it was cold calling, some of it… sort of in Japan, especially, I remember I just got this absolutely wonderful interpreter who just got every single place I wanted to go on the phone and said, “Caitlin Doughty come on, either way, we’ll be there.” And I couldn’t believe what she could reach and the places we could get to. But I’m a terrible daredevil in the sense that I’ll call someone and say, “Hey, give me that access.”
LA: I wanted to say it’s very well reported and if it’s any consolation that you’re speaking to a journalist who hates talking on the phone. The book is proof that you have been received by many people. How do you think you managed to gain people’s trust?
CD: I’m honest about my perspective, and part of that is that I’m a practitioner. So I think that helps. I think it helps that I’m not a journalist. I am a death practitioner by trade. I know the right questions. I don’t go into those situations and think, “So how do you feel about death?” You know, “So crazy about death, right? Is it sad for you?” You know, me, I’m already understanding as much as I can and researching as much as I can.
I grew up in Hawaii. I was born and raised in Hawaii. I’m obviously a non-native Hawaiian. I, you know, my parents lived there, my grandparents lived there. But I’m a white person who was born and raised in Hawaii, but I grew up very conscious of tourism. And if you go to Waikiki, if you go to these places, you understand the behavior of tourists from a young age and what is and what is not acceptable and what is, you know, for lack of better words, somehow spasmodic or exaggerated line. I’m extremely conscious of not being too loud and being as respectful as possible. [singing].
LA: After the break, an extraordinary ritual in honor of the ancestors. It’s an intrepid journey into the mountainous region of South Sulawesi, an island at the very tip of Indonesia.
CD: We went to this rural part of Indonesia where they mummify their dead and they take them to this festival called Ma’nene and they clean their bodies and they clean their clothes and they parade them around and put them in front of people and, and this understanding. And we, we stayed with a family in one of those villages and just found out on the very last day that in the little house, these are these beautiful houses on stilts that was only maybe 10, 20 feet away, there was a mummified corpse of her grandmother sleeps there all the time. And I didn’t know that. And for someone like me, it’s not like, “Oh, how awful.” It’s like, “Ooh, one more wrinkle, one more piece of understanding. Why is she there? And they would let us come visit her and bring her some offerings because they brought her some biscuits and cigarettes or something that she wanted even though she had wanted it for a year dead.”