This Mortician Wants You to Take a Hands-On Approach with Corpses
"We are entrenched in the idea that dead bodies are dangerous, and we are entrenched in the idea that it is better to have professionals do it... American death is a really recent invention."
Photo courtesy of Caitlin Doughty
As the creator of the popular and informative "Ask a Mortician" video series on YouTube, Caitlin Doughty has explored death related questions such as: Do corpses soil themselves? What happens to someone's breast implants when they get cremated? How prevalent is necrophilia in the funeral industry?
VICE interviewed her back in 2012, but since then Caitlin's ambitions have moved forward and shifted. Starting this November, she's embarking on a new project, called Undertaking LA. It's an alternative funeral practice that would give people the tools to take the undertaker out of the equation altogether. Or, as she succinctly described the concept to me, "The idea is that myself and another mortician just teach people that you don't really need us." Caitlin certainly speaks from experience. She is a licensed funeral director and mortician who spent several years working in the traditional funeral industry. Her recently released New York Times best-selling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory chronicles her first six years in the industry. I decided to reach out to her for a follow-up.
VICE: Reading the book, I got the impression that you're not a fan of the "I don't care what happens to my body when I die" mentality. This leads many people—often my fellow atheists or non-religious folks—into selecting cremation as the default option. Is that the case?
Caitlin Doughty: Yes, that's what my mom says: "I've thought about death, it's not that big a deal. It doesn't mean anything to me, the body doesn't mean anything. Cremate me, do what you want, put me in a hefty bag on the curb, doesn't matter." I don't think that's true. I am also completely secular [and] irreligious, but I think ritual is still really important. Ritual and religion are totally different things. They can be connected, but atheists get married all the time, atheists have birthday parties all the time.
Do you feel like it's a cop out to say that?
Yeah, I completely do. Because it's also a privilege to be able to say that. We live in a world now where bodies can magically disappear and be disposed of and cremated without any interaction from the people who are in the immediate community of the person who died. It's only been like this for 75 years or so where you can have the luxury of saying, "You know what? The body's not a big deal, just take it away and cremate it." The "just take it away and cremate it" part was not something you ever got to do prior to that. Having the burden of the body just completely lifted away from you is actually this huge privilege—maybe it's not such a privilege, though, because you're not getting any real sense of your own mortality.
So would you say it's better for people to take more control of the process and get creative?
Right now, if you feel like you just have to go with the status quo—the casket, the embalming, the flowers, and the graveside service—then there's no incentive for you to push yourself with the rituals, push yourself in terms of creativity, and to find something that's meaningful for you. But if you go back to a much more basic template, where you're in charge of the body, and you're in charge of the service, and you're in charge of how things go, then you kind of have to find new ways to create ritual and to create things that are meaningful around the body.
And why do you think that hasn't happened yet?
Because we are entrenched in the myths of the funeral industry. We are entrenched in the idea that dead bodies are dangerous, and we are entrenched in the idea that it is better to have professionals do it. Entrenched in the idea that how death is done is how it's always been done, even though American death is a really recent invention.
Image courtesy of The Good Death
So that's where Undertaking LA comes in?
The idea [of Undertaking LA] is that myself and another mortician just teach people that you don't really need us. Here are all the laws, here's all the tips and tricks, here's how to take care of the body yourself, file paperwork yourself, basically go around the funeral home. If you want to. You don't have to, but it's an option.
Would you say that "DIY funerals" is an accurate term?
I think so, yeah. That makes it sound like "trendz" with a Z, but I think it is, yeah. When you're with a dead body of someone that you knew really well, we're saying, one, Here's a chance to say your goodbyes and realize that this person is really dead and see the little physical changes in their body and feel them go cold and be like, "OK, this person's not here anymore." This person's out of the picture and out of my community and out of my life. And then, two, be able to look at this dead body in person and say, "Wow, I'm mortal too. I am doomed to die and let's see how that plays into my life."
Once people are made aware that they can take control of the funeral and burial process, does that often lead to them to think of possibilities they wouldn't previously have considered?
Oh, totally. Though probably only one-twentieth of people who say, "Oh my God, that's so amazing, I had no idea" are actually going to do any part of that. It's not like as soon as someone finds out they can take care of the corpse themselves they're like, "Ah, I'm going to run out and do it, get me a corpse, sign me up." There's still going to be fear, there's still going to be societal misconceptions, there's going to be stigmas built up around it in their mind. But even just knowing they have the option probably empowers them when they go into the funeral home. [Even] if you want the funeral home to take care of the body you might say, "Hey, I don't want you to embalm the body because I know that I don't need that chemical preservation and maybe I want to come and sit with the body for two hours. Where's my two-hour block where I just come in and hold its hand?" Knowing that you have those options is a good thing even if everyone's not running out to become the most hands-on body caretaker in the world.
In the book you write: "The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death." That might seem counterintuitive to some.
Death is the fundamental motivator of all of the achievement in our lives. If we end up writing a book or building a building or we have ten children or whatever we are doing in our lives, death and the knowledge that we are going to die is the thing that's looming over our shoulders and causing us to make these decisions. And if we are not acknowledging that then we have less of a sense of self-awareness about our world. We're just kind of walking around bumping into walls.
It sounds like you agree with author Susan Jacoby that longevity is overrated.
There's talk of extending life, and there's this magical unicorn of "cell reversal" and going back in age or preserving life at a young age which is some sort of magical future. But the reality is right now that all we are doing with life extension is extending life far beyond most people's threshold for an enjoyable life. And this is Susan's point too. In the media all we get is this image of "I'm a 95-year-old nun who still coaches soccer and plays with puppies and is skydiving and I'm so amazing." When in reality, the vast majority of elderly women are holed up in nursing homes with an incredibly low quality of life. The money runs out and so they just go on government subsidies and—especially as the baby boomers get older—we are not going to have the money or the resources to take care of them. And that's a societal problem. We shouldn't be radically trying to extend people's lives until we're actually taking care of the people that we actually have alive.
What are your thoughts then on transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil who would like to see death become a thing of the past?
I think that the people who are into life extension tend to be very outspoken about the fact that it's for them specifically. It's not to help save children in the third world, it's not to help build our society in a positive way—it's because they like themselves, they like their lives of privilege, and they want to extend them. Which is fine, but the fact that these are men who already have a great deal of power and money to begin with... I don't know if that's the right place to start a longer-lived society. If your template is these men of incredible wealth and power—men, pretty universally—I don't know that that goes well long-term. Just in general trying to extend life when, again, we're not taking care of the people we have—even in this country—where are our priorities? How can you stand up there and say that?
Should people be afraid of dead bodies for health reasons?
No, they totally shouldn't. [Even] with Ebola, for instance, all we're hearing is, "Oh my God, this is so deadly." The virus doesn't live that long. If you bury a body and you bury it well, the virus dies off, and it's not like if those bodies were to be flooded or something and come out of the ground they would continue to shoot off Ebola for years to come. It's not the way that science works. We know how science works on these bodies now. We know that anybody that would die at home or in a nursing home in America is totally safe. Cancer, lung disease, heart disease, accidents, HIV—all of these create completely safe corpses. And in fact safer than a living body because it's not sneezing or pooping or doing any of the things that transfer any sort of disease. If you're worried about the body decomposing a little bit or gases building up or anything, the bacteria involved in that are not the same bacteria that cause decomposition. Decomposition bacteria and disease bacteria are totally different.
Why do people think then that there is a health risk? Where does this misconception come from? Are people taught this in mortuary school?
I sat right there as the professor said, "We embalm bodies for the public health. We are sanitation engineers for the good of the public." I think the reason we were taught that is that it was the secret ingredient that made funeral directors professionals. That made them sort of "medical-ish." That made them have this thing that the rabble couldn't do with dead bodies. And if you take that away, that takes away the fundamental principle of morticians, or funeral directors, or the funeral industry. So you have to keep that perception up. To the point that I think a lot of [funeral professionals] don't even really know. They're not trying to pull one over on you, they just genuinely don't know that that's not the case.
Do you think describing the appearance of an embalmed body as "natural" is appropriate? Anecdotally people have told me looking at one has freaked them out.
Tale as old as time. That's another reason why people don't want to be involved with death ritual. Because if the one body you've seen was your grandfather and you were ten and he was chemically preserved within an inch of his life and had makeup on and looked like wax, never again are you gonna be like, "It's important and I know it's good for me to go to a funeral." Because the last funeral you went to was a horror show. So why do that again?
I think it's better to have them look like their "dead version" than not like them at all. If you let someone be natural—no chemical intervention or anything—after they die, then they look like like the dead version of themselves. And that's not a bad thing because they are dead. And you're supposed to be getting used to the idea that they are dead.
Sure, but how "natural" are such viewings even without embalming?
If you have a funeral home do it, they probably have some tricks that they've used. There's probably some wires, there's probably some eye caps and some Super Glue involved if they've prepared the body. But if you're preparing it at home, it can be as natural as you want. Essential oils, candles, rolled-up towel under the mouth, it can be as completely natural as you want it to be. But it's all cultural. The eyes being a little open, the mouth being a little open—the fact that we're not comfortable with that is cultural. It's not an innate human thing to not want a [dead] person's mouth to be open a little bit. Most people don't hang around with their one eye open and their mouth hanging open, so we have to do that a little bit so they look relaxed and groovy. But the complete horror we experience at the really natural processes of death is very much part of modern culture.
How can a non-mortician spend time with a corpse or corpses? Outside of going to a funeral or something, could someone do that?
Not really, which sucks. That's not the answer I want to give you. I've thought about like, What if I donated my body to decompose in a glass coffin? And people could just come by and take a look.
Like performance art?
Or just a public service: "Are you 40 years old and you've still never seen a real dead body in your life? Come on down and experience it in a realistic way."
The fear of God is put into people in the funeral industry, and in the medical examiner's office, so much that if they let anybody in behind the scenes that they're going to get fired and it's a violation. So it's hard to get somebody to do it.
So it's not a legal issue? People just don't want to?
Yeah, which is a shame. I think the coroner should give tours. And I think that we should have a lot of public outreach from funeral homes, where even if they don't get to see the bodies, people get to see the cremation machines. Or see an embalming room without bodies in it.
Sounds like a great idea for a school field trip.
There's a really awesome set of pictures I found from the 1970s of high school students visiting a morgue. And they're just hangin' out in the morgue. You would never see that anymore.
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