Women Who Travel Podcast: How Other Cultures Care For Their Dead—And What We Can Learn From Them

LA: We look for meaningful rituals in other places so that we can learn from them. Caitlin describes the Japanese ritual of kotsuage, during which she observed a family using special sticks to pick bones from the ashes after a cremation. It goes without saying that these types of moments are some of the most private, intimate and vulnerable. So to witness these private ceremonies in a respectful way, she has local researchers to guide her.

cd: Some of it was cold calling, some of it was… Kind of in Japan especially, I remember just getting this absolutely wonderful interpreter who just got every place I wanted to go on the phone and was like “Caitlin Doughty is coming, like and such a day we will be there.” And I couldn’t believe what she was able to achieve and, and the places we were able to get into. But I’m a terrible go-getter in terms of calling someone and being like, “Hey, give me this access.”

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LA: I wanted to say, it’s very well reported and if it’s any comfort, you’re talking to a journalist who hates talking on the phone. The book is proof that many people have welcomed you. How do you think you managed to win people’s trust?

cd: I am honest about my perspective and some of it is that I am a practitioner. So I think that helps. I think it helps that I’m not a journalist. I am a, a dead practitioner of the trade. I know how to ask the right questions. I don’t go into these situations like, “So how do you feel about death?” You know, like, “So death is crazy, right? Is it sad for you?” You know, I, I’m already getting as much understanding as I can, doing as much research as possible.

I grew up in Hawaii. I was born and raised in Hawaii. I am obviously a, not a native person in Hawaii. 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 hyper aware of tourism. And when you go to Waikiki, when you go to these places, you understand tourist behavior from a very young age and what is and what is not acceptable and what is, you know, for lack of a better word, kind of cringey or about the Line. I am hyper, hyper conscious of not being too loud and as respectful as I can be. [singing].

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LA: After the break, an extraordinary ritual to honor ancestors. It is an intrepid trip to 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 them dead and they take them out for this festival called the Ma’nene and they clean their bodies and clean their clothes and walk them around and put the People forward and , and that understanding. And we, we were staying with a family in one of these villages and we found out just the very last day that in the small house, which these beautiful houses are still standing, which is just probably 10, 20 meters away, a mummified corpse of their grandmother, the very Time to sleep there. And I didn’t know that. And for someone like me, that’s not like, “Oh, how awful.” That’s like, “Ooh, another trap, another piece of understanding. Why is she there? And they let us come to her and bring her offerings, because they bring her some cookies and cigarettes or anything she wants, even though she has been dead for a year.”

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