What I Learned Hanging Out with Corpses Around the World

Author and mortician Caitlin Doughty tells us about her new book, in which she explores funeral rites from across the globe.

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Jul 7 2017, 9:30pm

All photos courtesy of Caitlin Doughty

Though we are all guaranteed death, the Western world has uniquely uncomfortable relationship with it. Mortician Caitlin Doughty has spent her career advocating for reform of the Western funeral industrial complex and for its living participants to reevaluate their squicked out stances on corpses.

Via her progressive Los Angeles funeral home, Doughty dispels myths about corpse handling and advises the grieving on ways they can avoid the unnecessary (and costly) procedures that are often associated with the passing of a loved one.

In From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, the forthcoming sequel to her 2015 book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Doughty chronicles her journey around the globe to observe and participate in the more hands-on funeral rituals of other cultures. Whether chatting with Indonesian families as they casually clean the mummified remains of their ancestors or watching Japanese mourners pick bones from cremains with chopsticks before putting the ashes in high-tech glowing Buddhas, Doughty finds the humanity in others cultures' relationship with death that seems to be lacking in ours.

We spoke with Doughty about these macabre affairs and what the rest of us might be able to learn from them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All photos courtesy of Caitlin Doughty
Cases full of Bolivian natitas: skulls of the dead that are said to smoke, grant wishes, and communicate with the living

VICE: What do you consider the most unfounded discomfort Westerners have toward the dead?
Caitlin Doughty: Simply put, the idea that the dead body is dangerous. The idea that there are disease factors or disease transmitters or the idea that the act of decomposition pushes you closer toward danger.

How do you change mindsets about death in an era when people seem less willing than ever to accept information that challenges their existing worldview?
I think it helps me and the people who advocate for the same things that I do in that we are right. That's a boon to our cause.

For example, we're doing outreach around LA in the Latino and African American communities and the facts are that funerals, for many people in these communities, cost more than $10,000. And, if you choose to keep these bodies at home for two days, put 'em in a suit, everyone comes over with food for a party. There can be prayer or whatever you want. That's free!

You still have to pay for the cremation or burial, but all those thousands of dollars of funeral costs are erased. And that's something tangible that we can offer that helps fix a problem in the community. And they don't have to go bankrupt or create a GoFundMe to be able to bury their dead.

Your work implies that much of Western weirdness about the dead is a learned behavior, taught by society. Is that something you had to deprogram yourself of or are you innately better equipped than most to calmly deal with death?
I definitely had to deprogram myself. I was not better equipped. In fact, I was maybe even a little more scared and that anxiety led me to pursue it head on.

Most living in the West haven't interacted with a dead body, and, if they have, it's been embalmed and presented to them all laid out with makeup and a suit, so to have someone be comfortable in the presence of the dead is not an easy transition. I think the way to first get around that is to introduce people to their own dead. There's a completely different relationship there.

It's the difference between me putting you in a room with a random corpse or putting you in a room with your dead wife or partner or mother. That would change things for you. You wouldn't look at your dead mother and go, "Ugh, a corpse most vile!" And an unembalmed dead body still looks very much like the person and not this uncanny valley version of them.

A lot of those contextually normal ceremonies from the book you're mentioning might be seen as grisly to some readers. So where do you draw the line between ritual and desecration of a corpse? And how do you feel about our legal system's take on what constitutes desecration in general?
This is an area I'm fascinated by, and I've had long conversations about this with Tanya Marsh, a law professor at Wake Forest and the expert on human remains law in the United States.

Each state has a different definition of what constitutes desecration, and they're all so vague. It'll be something like "desecration of a corpse is something that goes against our sacred understanding of body care." What does that even mean?

There's a company now that removes corpse tattoos. They launched a contract with funeral homes so that the director makes an incision around the tattoo and sends that skin in to be preserved by this company. The survivors can keep that as art. And [Marsh] argues that that goes against desecration of corpse laws because chopping up a corpse, except for medical purposes, is something we don't agree with in America.

But it's always changing. For a long time, people thought that cremation was desecration. For me, it comes down to whether or not you're doing something that deeply offends the sensibilities of the family.

Similarly, where do you draw the line between respecting the memory of the person who was once alive and the matter that remains when they've expired?
I'm a pretty secular person, and I don't believe your dead flesh is somehow cosmically intertwined with some journey. But what I do believe is the fact that we've been having funerals and laying out and interacting with the body all over the world, in every culture, and throughout human history, shows that the dead body really has some magic and importance to it. It shows that people want to ritualize the act of letting go and break it into steps with tasks to do. Our culture right now is one of the first in human history to be like, "Rituals? Nope! Not gonna do it."

I think that aggressively secular idea of death, to the point of people being like "I don't care what happens with my body. It means nothing. Just burn me and dump me in the toilet." I think that is denial in and of itself. And it's pretty dangerous to say we don't need the ritual or a way to grieve.

A wall of LED Buddha urns in a futuristic Tokyo mausoleum

The chapter on Japan differed from the others in that the culture around death there seems to be more forward focused and tech driven than the other, more tradition-laden places. Do you see practices like theirs as a potential way of bridging that gap for secular Westerners?
Absolutely! The two things that the funeral industries in Western, English-speaking countries are most terrified of are letting families near the dead bodies at all in any sort of unmediated way, and technology. These are places that still consider making a PowerPoint presentation of photos for the wake to be revolutionary. They consider having a nice website to be a burden. So that's where we currently are.

And that's why I wanted to go to Japan, because they have a funeral industry that really is open to technology. Not all of it's going to succeed, of course. I think in 20 years or so, some of it is going to be regarded like the Tamagotchi—a cute relic of the past. Japan is doing a great job of combining the traditions, seeing the dead body, showing up for the cremation, having the kotsuage (the ceremony where they transfer the bones into the urn). But also, they're kind of rewarded by having all these high-tech options for the ashes.

So, to answer your question, I do think there's a real crossover between the type of person who'd be like, "I'm secular, don't do anything with me" and someone who'd be into what could be done with their ashes using really cool technology.

As we go even further with tech and approach increasingly plausible sci-fi "solutions" to mortality like "mind uploading," what sort of impact do you think that will have on our relationship with body death?
There will be a huge impact. I think there are some more obvious arguments about the dangers of Singularity, which are: We're already radically overpopulating a planet that can't sustain us, and there's huge wealth disparity so the people benefitting from this would likely be rich white men from Silicon Valley. So life and death would become a class issue.

What's even more interesting to me, and something the people pushing toward this kind of tech don't tend to speak of, is how much the fact of your life ending impacts your motivation to do anything. Would you be doing this interview with me today if you knew your life was going to be infinite?

So let's say everyone was just real chill and meditative and lived in the moment because immortality is a given. OK, then who's moving society forward? Who makes the food? I think there are so many ethical issues there that we haven't begun to scratch the surface on, and most of them have to do with how tweaking our lifespan and our relationship with mortality is going to have huge impacts on the human sense of ourselves.

Beyond the predatory financial aspect, what makes the Western dissociative and uncomfortable relationship with the dead any less valid a cultural practice than the others from across the ages and around the world?
My job is to ask people in their 20s and 30s about their experiences with death and, over and over, the response has been, "I went to a wake, the body was super embalmed, had makeup on in the casket, and I just left feeling really weirded out. I tapped mom on the shoulder, and she was rock hard. It just wasn't a good experience for me, and I don't think I want to go to another public wake like that."

With what I propose instead, I get such a positive response back, so it's easier for me to speak disparagingly about the way the Western funeral industry is set up. And the only people who ever push back at me are funeral industry employees.

The rise of the funeral industry was a purely capitalist endeavor. It's based on consumerism, not religious or community beliefs.

An Indonesian family cleans the mummified body of a relative.

Of the many rituals you visited for the book, were there any that made you, even with your background and beliefs, have a visceral and/or unexpected reaction or a bit of revulsion over a practice?
I don't think so because I was just so thrilled to be seeing these things.

I was trying to be open minded to changing my take if it came up, but what I was seeing was mostly reinforcing my beliefs that, everywhere you go, people really care about their dead. Even if they're literally pulling a cockroach from a mummy's penis, it's a very loving act done with good intentions.

Were there any unique death customs you weren't able to check out for or include that you wanted to?
Honestly, [the publisher was] like "OK, Caitlin, you've bene doing this for two and a half years now. Better turn in the book." But, if I was an eccentric rich person, this book would've taken ten years and be 2,000 pages long.

In Bali, when people who are really important die, they put their caskets in these giant, several-story-tall bulls and parade them down the street and set them on fire. It's like Burning Man. Would've loved to have seen that.

Finally, some practical advice. What's your best method for stifling a laugh at a funeral?
If it's not a totally serious moment, maybe just laugh. Have a good time. But if it is a super serious funeral, try to think about your own funeral to stop it.

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death is out on October 3rd and available for pre-order now.

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