Caitlin Doughty has great hair. She’s a whip-smart writer and beloved YouTube personality. Oh, and she’s also a mortician. I talk to her about death, dying with dignity, plus why she thinks we don't even need morticians.
Have you always been more comfortable around death than most people?
I don’t think so. I think because I had all this discomfort around death, I was more interested in knowing… I thought if I just saw what was going on, maybe some of that would go away.
And it has?
Oh yeah, certainly. The existential stuff never goes away. The whole, I don’t know what anything means or Do I want to live or do I want to die, those things never totally go away, at least in my experience. But any fear of dead bodies or the physical processes of death don’t scare me much at all. It seems like the most natural thing in the world to me to be afraid of your own death, but the least natural thing to be afraid of a corpse.
Are you afraid of your own death?
Um, yes and no. I’m not this fully-realized Buddhist monk who has transcended to the point that I don’t have any attachment to things in my normal life. I have a partner who I love very much and I have this thing that I’m doing, this public advocacy, that I value very much and don’t want to have it die with me. I mean, there’s a lot of people who are doing it, but there is this fear that the world can’t go on without you. Each day brings me a new reason to fear death or to engage with your own mortality, so you have to keep checking in. You can reach a day when you’re like, I’m totally cool with death. I could die right now. And then the next day brings a whole new set of problems.
Are you currently a mortician?
Well, I am and I am not. I quit my job and started my own company. My business partner and I are both morticians. We started a company that’s trying to teach people that they don’t need us. It’s showing people all of the things that you are legally able to do yourself.
You talk a lot about a Good Death. What do you mean by that?
There are a lot of definitions of a good death. To me, it’s one that is engaged with and expected in a way. Especially if someone is elderly or dying, [a good death] is really discussed. What does that person want? Not only for their body and funeral, but how they want to die. How much medical intervention do they want? How long do they want to be kept alive past the point that they no longer have a good quality of life? A good death is a death that’s taken really seriously as a process and a ritual. So many deaths especially now in America are ignored on every level. Ignored on the emotional and physical level before the person dies and then ignored as a ritual when the person dies.
In what ways do you think people are ignoring it?
Well, I think first of all people are not willing or are afraid to have the conversation before they die because they are so afraid of their own death. And then after someone dies, there’s the perception that we should just have the body cremated. So we’ll just call the funeral home from the hospital. They’ll come take the body away and then they’ll get the ashes in a week and won’t have anything to do with the body or the cremation. Maybe they’ll just have a memorial in a month.
You talk a lot about natural burial and taking care of your loved ones in the home. What does that mean?
The idea of taking care of the body at home is based on the premise that they’re not dangerous to the living except in a few very specific instances, like the person dies of Ebola. But for the most part, the corpse is not dangerous. You are just as qualified as me, a licensed mortician, to wash the body, dress the body and have it in your home for a day or two. You can have a wake at home that’s perhaps more meaningful than one you would have in a funeral home. And then, the idea behind the natural burial is to really accept that when you die, your parts can go back into the universe. We shouldn’t be trying so hard to preserve bodies as we do with embalming and preservation and the big sealed casket and vault. Maybe we could do it like people have been for thousands of year and dig a hole and put a body in it.
Right. People have been doing exactly that for thousands of years and yet today, I suspect many would find that practice in someway disrespectful.
It’s a narrow, late 20th Century version of death. It’s not how humanity has done it. In fact, it’s a real departure from how humanity has done it.
If you could change one thing about the western mindset about death, what would it be?
I think it would be the idea that we can completely hide death and the actual dead bodies and it’s going to be okay for our culture. We can say, Oh, if we don’t see them or interact with them and we don’t have any real sense of our death, I’m sure that won’t have any negative effect on how we understand the world. Or how we interact with our own life or mortality. That’s just not true.
If I wanted to provide a natural burial, what would I do? Is that that even legal?
Natural burial is legal absolutely everywhere. The reason it’s not available absolutely everywhere is because the individual cemeteries don’t like it. It’s cemetery policy. It’s not legislative policy. The reason cemeteries don’t like it is because one, they can’t sell the vault and things like that. And two, if you have a natural burial, they don’t have all those big cement things below ground and the ground creates a mound above the grave. That makes it a lot harder to landscape. S cemeteries don’t like natural burials. However, a lot of cemeteries are realizing that there is a demand for them, so they’ll open a small section for it.
People don’t stop dying because it’s Christmas, midnight or you’re sunning yourself in the Caribbean. What’s your schedule like?
Yeah, it depends on when you work. I spent a lot nights on call. In fact, I would say that there’s more deaths around Christmas or the holidays because people get depressed, or maybe because they were hanging on to see their families one last time. And their family comes and they let go or their family doesn’t come and they’re like, fuck it. One year, I had to pick up 11 bodies on Christmas Eve and drive them from San Diego to LA. People do not stop dying because you’d like to have Christmas with your family.
Us food nerd folks like to discuss what our own “last supper” would be. What’s yours?
I think it would probably end with a lemon tart that was actually really tart and sour. The greatest disappointment has often been a lemon tart or pie that’s more sweet or sugary than tart. I think before I die, I’d want that to be rectified so I don’t have to go out in this blaze of disappointment that I’ve never gotten my tart lemon tart. Maybe for dinner, a really good moules frites with a really thick white wine sauce. And fries that are extra absorbent.
I really respect what you do. I think that it’s a huge responsibility to care of another human being like that. What’s that like?
I hope more people find out what that’s like. I hope more people take that responsibility for their loved ones.
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