In her campy web series “Ask a Mortician,” best-selling author Caitlin Doughty fields some pretty intense questions from her more than 200,000 subscribers. Queries run the gamut from “How long does rigor mortis last?” to “What happens to titanium hips during cremation?” Funny and frank, Doughty addresses each one with in-depth knowledge, kitschy graphics, and a bit of gallows humor.
At age 33, she says she feels lucky to have found her life’s work in death.
In her first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014), Doughty recounted the good, the bad, and the gory of her early days in the death industry, and her realization that most Americans would rather not think about the details of death. In her new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Doughty goes in search of funerary rituals that reflect a more open acknowledgment of death.
“People seem so obsessed with our American way of death that they can’t understand how beautiful rituals in other places are, and what they might have to teach us,” she says. During two years of researching the book, her destinations included:
- La Paz, Bolivia, where women keep and care for dozens of human skulls believed to have distinct healing powers
- Crestone, Colorado, the only place in the U.S. where open-air funeral pyre ceremonies are an option
- Yokohama, Japan, where a high-tech “corpse hotel” features a space for families to bathe the decedent
- Tana Toraja, Indonesia, where relatives mummify and keep the bodies of their dearly departed at home for years, cleaning and redressing them, talking with them and offering them food.
“Seeing these different rituals was a bit of an affirmation of what I’m doing in my business,” says Doughty, who runs a progressive funeral home in Los Angeles. “The main theme is family participation. I would love to see more alternative funeral homes that are user friendly — places you can engage with the unembalmed body.” She’s found that when families spend time preparing the body of a loved one, it changes their perspective. Instead of a “cursed object,” the corpse becomes a “beautiful vessel.” For many, the interaction with the body allows the grief process to move forward.
The idea isn’t particularly radical. Doughty points out that before the turn of the last century, it was common for Americans to keep a body at home for a day or two, with relatives (usually women) washing and dressing the deceased for burial. Family members built coffins and carried the body to the grave. But today, death has moved from the home to the hospital, and funerals have become so corporatized that dead bodies are rarely seen.
Proponents of the growing “death positive movement” believe that hiding death and dying behind closed doors harms society. Doughty ignited the movement when she founded the online community The Order of the Good Death, in 2011. Since then, she’s become the face of death-positive advocacy.
She didn’t start out with the aim of being a pioneer in alternative death care. But “there isn’t a huge job market for a medieval studies major,” Doughty says, laughing. Ten years ago, with a college education in medieval death rituals and no plans for a specific career, she landed a job at a crematory in Oakland. “I wasn’t sold on it,” she recalls. “I just wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes.”
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Soon after she started ferrying bodies into (and remains out of) the fire, she had an epiphany: “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life!” She felt a calling to overhaul the American approach to death.
While working at the crematory, Doughty had noticed how often she was alone with a body in its final moments of existence. Though she wasn’t a friend or family member, she was essentially escorting the person into death. “That felt really wrong to me,” she says. “I wanted to tell people I’m honored to do the job, but it shouldn’t just be me.” She learned that the reason most people don’t witness cremations is because they don’t know it’s a possibility — and even when they do, they’d rather avoid it.
What’s so wrong with keeping death out of sight, out of mind? As she says in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, “When you know that death is coming for you, the thought inspires you to be ambitious, to apologize to old enemies, call your grandparents, work less, travel more, learn Russian, take up knitting. Fall in love.”
Doughty believes a change in the death culture is “in the zeitgeist,” thanks to several factors. “Because of the Internet, there’s nothing you can’t know,” she says. “People are questioning industries, including the funeral industry, asking, ‘Why am I paying all this money?’ People aren’t buying it anymore.” The influential boomer generation is also playing a big part in shifting attitudes. “The people who are dying today are in their 80s and 90s, and they still want to do things in the old way,” Doughty says. “But boomers are more environmentally conscious, more interested in eco-burial options [no embalming, no casket] than an expensive funeral their kids have to pay for.” She’s also encouraged by the large numbers of young women entering death and dying industry with a mission to change the way it’s done.
As for her own death, Doughty is clear. “If I died tomorrow, I’d want a natural burial,” she says, meaning just a biodegradable wrapping and direct placement in the ground at a “green burial” cemetery. “When I think about my body decomposing, it makes me happy. We are animals. We eat animals all our lives. It’s a powerful metaphor for how we’re just a part of the life cycle of earth.”
Brangien Davis is a Seattle-based freelance writer/editor, teacher, and singer/songwriter whose work has appeared in The Seattle Times, Seattle Magazine, Wired, The Village Voice, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. She also spent five years as a books and music editor in the early days of Amazon.com.
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