Traveling the world to find the meaning of death: “The Halloween Tree” and “From Here to Eternity”

Sometimes, two books that seem totally unrelated are actually soulmates. In this case, I put forth Ray Bradbury’s fantasy Halloween adventure “The Halloween Tree” and Caitlin Doughty’s non-fiction exploration of death rituals around the world. Don’t believe me?

Both books are adventures in a handful of select countries, overlapping in Mexico. Caitlin Doughty’s writing style is friendly, warm, open; she’s bringing us along for the ride. Bradbury’s writing is lyrical, melodious, allowing you to get lost in the sentences. The adventurous fun masks the true, serious meaning of both books: our struggle with mortality, our curiosity about death, and our horror at the realities of it.

One of my favorite passages in “The Halloween Tree” is eerily reminiscent of “From Here to Eternity”:

“Up in Illinois, we’ve forgotten what it’s all about. I mean the dead, up in our town, tonight, heck, they’re forgotten. Nobody remembers. Nobody cares. Nobody goes to sit and talk to them. Boy, that’s lonely. That’s really sad. But here—why, shucks. It’s both happy and sad. It’s all firecrackers and skeleton toys down here in the plaza and up in that graveyard now are all the Mexican dead folks with the families visiting and flowers and candles and singing and candy. I mean it’s almost like Thanksgiving, huh? And everyone set down to dinner, but only half the people able to eat, but that’s no mind, they’re there. It’s like holding hands at a séance with your friends, but some of the friends gone. Oh, heck, Ralph.”

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Caitlin Doughty shares similar concerns when telling her stories, describing American funeral culture as death-avoidant, obsessed with preventing aging and decay.

Why do we refuse to have these conversations, asking our family and friends what they want done with their body when they die?

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

When deathcare became an industry in the early twentieth century, there was a seismic shift in who was responsible for the dead. Caring for the corpse went from visceral, primeval work performed by women to a “profession,” an “art,” and even a “science,” performed by well-paid men. The corpse, with all its physical and emotional messiness, was taken from women. It was made neat and clean, and placed in its casket on a pedestal, always just out of our grasp. Maybe a process like recomposition is our attempt to reclaim our corpses. Maybe we wish to become soil for a willow tree, a rosebush, a pine—destined in death to both rot and nourish on our own terms.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

Separated by decades, both books ask the question: how have we grown so disconnected from death in modern times? And how do people around the world deal with death, now and before? And ultimately, what do we want for our lives.. and eventually, our deaths?

Want to learn more about these books? Listen to our book club episode: Exploring the Good Death with Caitlin Doughty’s “From Here to Eternity” and pick up the book at your local library or bookstore!

Our spooky episode about “The Halloween Tree” will be coming out 10/25, wherever you listen to podcasts.

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