by Meaghan Kelley
I now know: when I die, I want to be buried naturally. I want my body to be wrapped in a shroud and placed in the earth, without the physical and financial burdens of embalming or cremation. But thinking about my own mortality has not always been easy for me: as a child, I kept myself awake at night with my fears about death. I decided to take control of this fear, and started educating myself on death: I wrote a paper on the economics of Ghanaian funeral rituals, I filmed a documentary with my father in a cemetery, and I started watching Caitlin Doughty's ‘Ask a Mortician’ series on YouTube.
Caitlin is a licensed mortician, the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a group dedicated to curtailing death phobia, and the author of her recently published memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory. I talked to Caitlin about death positivity, women in the funeral industry, and why she hopes new death rituals aren’t compared to artisanal pickles.
I want to start by saying that my goal for this chat is to get people talking about their own mortality in the comments section. I thought you might be on board with that.
Yeah, very awesome.
You say that as Americans, we’re living in a “death denying” culture. What does that mean and where do you think we went wrong?
Well, a “death denial” culture just means that we’re not engaging with death as a very natural part of life. We’re not treating it like it’s a very obvious endpoint to all of our activities. We’re trying to act like it’s not in many ways, and even more than that, we’re trying to act like the dead body doesn’t exist in culture. We just don’t see it. It’s hidden.
I think there’s a couple reasons why that happened. In the 1930s, there was a rise in both the medical industry and the funeral industry. Both of those industries said, “Hey, we’re the professionals. You shouldn’t die at home and you shouldn’t have the dead body at home. We’re equipped to do both of these things better than you would do yourself.” And the public, because there were growing cities and growing industrialization in all areas, really went along with it. So, we’re at the point now where we completely question whether we’re even able to die at home or have the body at home and take care of it ourselves. We rely on medical and funeral professionals as professionals.
But are you legally allowed to have the body at home? Is that the case?
Absolutely. There’s about 9 to 10 states in the U.S. that require some kind of funeral director involvement, which means they’re required to sign the death certificate or arrange transportation. But in every state, you’re allowed to keep the body at home and do some kind of death care yourself. You don’t have to have it embalmed or taken to the mortuary.
And would you say that most people don’t realize that that’s an option for them?
Yeah. [laughs] I travel a lot now and whenever I tell a cab driver that, they’re like “What?! That’s crazy!” Most people have no idea that that’s a possibility.
What other misconceptions do you think the American public has about death and the funeral industry?
I guess the big ones are: one, that dead bodies are dangerous somehow. And then, two, that embalming is required to sanitize the dangerous dead body. In reality — to the first one — no, dead bodies, in the vast majority of cases, are not dangerous at all. And two, embalming is a process to preserve the body aesthetically for viewing. It’s not to sanitize the body. It’s not a public health thing that they’re doing, it’s a money thing. And the vaults that go in the ground are not a public health thing; it’s a money thing for the cemetery. So, a lot of the things that are in place in the funeral industry are not for the public, they’re for an industry to make money.
One of pop culture’s biggest horror obsessions is zombies. How do you read this fear of zombies in the context of American death denial?
A lot of people in the pop psychology/philosophy interpretation of zombies say it’s about the recession or about contagion or nihilism or loss of meaning. And I think that there’s probably all of that in there somewhere, but what doesn’t get talked about as much is that the actual horror of zombies is that they’re a decomposing body. That’s kind of all there is to them. They’re not very smart, cunning, or skilled; they’re just dead bodies walking around. And if we didn’t have such a horror of dead bodies or of basic, natural decomposition, then we wouldn’t be so afraid of a dead body coming after us. If you’ve actually spent time around dead bodies, you know that there’s actually very little that’s scary about them.
What are some steps that people can take to start acknowledging, rather than denying or fearing, death and their own mortality?
I think the number one thing is decide what you want done with your body because that leads to all sorts of conversations and it means you have to research a little bit. You might get into a couple of internet rabbit holes about the death industry and about body disposal technology, which is a good thing.
So figuring that out, and then telling people. Telling people around you and asking the people in your life — maybe your partner, your spouse, your parents — asking them what they want. And be prepared to be rejected the first time. They’re going to go, “Oh my God, that’s so morbid. Why would you ask that? Don’t ask that!” And then you just have to be willing to say, “Nope! It’s not morbid! Because remember you’re going to die! And that’s not morbid of me, that’s just practical of me! So why don’t you think about what you want done?”
Yes, I’ve encountered that many times, so I understand. One of my favorite videos of yours is the ‘It Gets Better, Morbid Kids!’ video. And there’s a quote in there that I really love, where you say that people who are terrified of death — the ones that would be calling you morbid — are “only living half their lives, closed off to the fact that death actually enhances our lives and makes it more beautiful.” Could you explain a little bit more about how death enhances our lives?
Yeah, and don’t let those people do that to you. Don’t ever let somebody make you feel weird for being interested in mortality because they can say, “Oh, you’re so morbid,” and you can say, “It’s also a little morbid and bizarre that you are in such denial about this very important part of your life.”
I think what death does is that it makes us more self-aware. If you’re not self-aware, you’re going about your life in the world having no understanding of why you’re doing the things that you’re doing. And everybody has people in their lives that you look at and you’re like, “Oh damn, that person is not self-aware. That person does not know how they look or how they sound or how their decisions are affecting other people.”
When you really spend a lot of time around dead bodies, you develop compassion and the ability to use more of your awareness, which is hard to explain, but knowing that you’re going to die and facing it is such a large part of the human experience. It has been ever since humans evolved to understand that we’re going to die. So if you’re not thinking about your own mortality, you really are only living part of your life in an aware way.
Yeah, and death is, obviously, such a universal thing.
Right, thinking about your own death is not a niche thing. It’s not a personal, morbid, private obsession — it’s the thing.
You said that one way that people can start acknowledging their mortality is to look at their options. I’m sure a lot of people don’t know that there are options beyond embalming and cremation. Can you go into some of those?
The big one is that there’s room for all sorts of more involvement than people realize. So first of all, if you want to be cremated, did you know that you can also have a wake prior to cremation and that your family can witness the cremation? They can come in with candles or with your favorite music and play it as you’re loaded into the cremation chamber.
If you want to be buried, you don’t have to be in a big, giant, sealed vault beneath the ground. You can be naturally buried, which means you can go straight back into the earth in a shroud, decompose naturally, and leave no footprint behind when you go.
And then your wake can take place at home. The people who loved you can take care of your body or have somebody help them take care of your body. You don’t have to be sent to some random dude at a funeral home and be kept in some freezer somewhere. That’s a possibility.
You can donate your body to science. You can have your body given to a medical school or to a private research company to test cancer technologies. Though you have to be careful because you don’t really know where your body is going. They can test all sorts of things. But, if you’re worried about that, look more into scientific body donation and the places that they would send a body like yours.
Yeah, so you have no control over that, right? Where you would be going?
Right, right, exactly. And then, you know, if you decide to get cremated, there’s all sorts of options beyond that. There’s scattering at sea, there’s sending you to space, there’s infinite numbers of options.
Do you notice a trend of people starting to turn away from the traditional and embrace these alternative methods and, if so, why do you think they’re doing that?
Yeah, I don’t want to say it’s a trend because that makes it seem like it’s going to be a fad for a couple of years and then go away… like artisanal pickles or something. But yeah, I have absolutely noticed it going in that direction because I think people — and I’ve found especially women, for some reason — are very, very interested in being closer with death and having more of an understanding of death. And the traditional methods we have now, which is take the body away immediately and bury it in the ground with lots of chemicals, is not really having an intimate relationship with death. It’s pretty much the opposite of that. So, if the status quo isn’t giving people a sense of completion or a good way to grieve or something that makes them feel okay about their own mortality, they’re going to find something else that does and a better way of doing it. And that’s happening right now.
Do you have any idea why women are becoming more interested in death? Is it just the public or are women becoming more present in the industry?
Yeah, both, big time. A lot of the people I went to mortuary school with were young women and, by far, the majority of people who contact me and tell me they want to go into mortuary science or they’ve been going into mortuary science are young women. And they’re very sincere. It’s not like these are girls who are like, “I’m into American Horror Story: Coven!” You know, it’s not fetishized for them. They’re very serious. They want to do this. And there’s a lot of bullshit answers that the industry gives, like, “Oh, it’s because women are so much more sympathetic than men.” But, I don’t know. There’s a cultural legacy there because in America, prior to the funeral industry taking over death, women were usually the ones who laid out the bodies and washed the bodies. So maybe it’s something about reclaiming that? I’m not sure exactly what it is. But, it’s definitely real by the numbers.
Have you ever encountered any resistance, personally or professionally, just for being a female mortician, or do you think it’s generally an industry that embraces the fact that they’re becoming more female dominant?
I mean I was lucky to work in California where they tend to be more progressive. There are some people that I’ve heard from in the Deep South, who say if you’re a woman there, they assume you’re the secretary or they assume you’re there to help families cry or something. Since I became more public with my views, there’s definitely been, you know, old, white guys with opinions on it. Recently, one guy said that he didn’t believe that I was a licensed funeral director at all. I was like, “Yep, just gotta look it up! That’s all you gotta do! It’s public information!” And then he ended with, “Oh yes, dear.” Ugh, barf. I definitely get my fair share of those.
You first started becoming public with your opinions through your YouTube channel, Ask a Mortician, which you started a few years ago. In what unique ways do you think that your YouTube channel has contributed to your mission of making death more present and accepted in our culture?
You could make a YouTube video that was just an animated video with all the same information in it, but I think that seeing someone who is cheerful and who just has a general attitude of, like, “Hey, I’m a pretty normal person! And it’s okay to have these thoughts! And let’s do it together, guys! Team death positivity!” makes people feel a little more comfortable. It may not work for everyone, but it’s the best that I can do as an individual person.
In one part of your book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, you say that what differentiates North American funeral practices from other cultural death rituals is belief. “We practice embalming, but we do not believe in embalming.” Why do you think this belief is absent and how can we find it? How can we fix that?
You’re asking how can we believe in something again? [laughs] That’s a good question. I think we’re increasingly secular in our beliefs. And even feedback from people who do have religious beliefs say that, for example, the old model of the Christian funeral doesn’t really mean that much to them. Standing above the embalmed body and reciting the hymns and “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” is not something that speaks to them.
And so, I think once we have a sense of the laws and them being on our side, we can become more empowered to create rituals that do work for us. There’s not a lot of experimentation right now with new rituals. Or there’s some, but not in the mainstream, because people don’t realize how much legal power they have to be in charge of the body and their own death and how they want to die. When you don’t think that you have any power and you think that you’re just part of the system, you’re not going to have any incentive to try and create things that are meaningful. And then those ideas don’t spread because they never get started. So the more that we promote the idea that you can be pushing these boundaries and these envelopes, the more that things are going to get thrown up against the wall and we’ll see what sticks.
And you’re trying to do that, with both your YouTube channel and your book, but also your Undertaking L.A. business that you’re starting, right?
Exactly, and that’s the idea. Giving people the information and the knowledge they need to take care of the body themselves outside of the funeral industry. And then saying this is our opportunity to create new meaning for ourselves or this is the opportunity to be empowered to feel differently about death and take it back into our own hands.
Going forward, what can we do to make death a more present part of our lives?
I think it’s a great idea to have people talk about what they want done with their bodies in the comments. That’s my dream. Put it there and then spread it out further. Put it as your Facebook status. I wish there was a week where everybody put what they wanted done with their body as their Facebook status. Or a day, like, This Is What I Want Done With My Body Day. November 5th or something.
I like it. November 5th!
Exactly. Go out from there and, especially if you’re intelligent young people, know that this revolution really needs you. If you feel a kinship with it, you should consider being part of it.
Meaghan Kelley works in documentary film in New York. In lieu of flowers, please send pie. She'll be tweeting from the grave @1thousandthings.
Photography by Anthony Chiappetta.