In 1980, only 6 percent of Americans were cremated. Now, just a generation later, 50 percent of Americans are choosing cremation. But unlike the intimacy of the experience in Japan, cremation in the U.S. is still quite industrial.
That’s one reason why, when we visited Undertaking LA, we were the rare guests that Caitlin Doughty ushered into the brick, factory-like space that contains two cremation machines running at full blast. There, we met Mike Munoz, the crematory operator, who handles first the bodies, and then the ashes. At 22 years old, he is committed to spending his life caring for the dead. He offered to open the door to show us one cremation that was nearly complete. It was a surprisingly peaceful sight: just a hint of bones, white as lace, lit by slowly undulating flames. “It’s beautiful,” said Doughty. “You don’t want to be the one who says a cremating body is beautiful, but cultures all around the world have open air pyres because it’s a sacred transition for many people.”
Caitlin Doughty, is just 32, but is accustomed to thinking ahead. She wants a green burial. Dust to dust. Unless there’s a way to be laid out above ground.
“The model for this is the Tibetan sky burial, where when someone dies they are laid out to be eaten by vultures. Hence the name “sky burial.” The Buddhist idea is that your body isn’t worth anything to you anymore, so why are you trying to hold on to it? Why don’t you give it back to other animals to take up into the sky? And I think that’s gorgeous.”
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