I first came across Caitlin Doughty in an interview she gave on NPR’s Fresh Air last year. Doughty who was born in Hawaii 1984, is an American mortician, author, blogger, and YouTube star. In 2014 her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory came out. I had been meaning to read the book ever since I heard the NPR interview and last week I finally got round to it.
The book, part memoir, part manifesto, tells about her experiences in the funeral industry. She had an unlikely route to her chosen career. At university she had studied medieval history. On graduation she moved to San Francisco in 2006, where at the age of 23, she found a job at Westwind Cremation & Burial. Her job involved picking up corpses from homes and hospitals, preparing them for viewings, cremating them, and finally delivering the ashes to the families. Despite her lack of experience, she was able to cope with being thrown in at the deep end. The opening chapter begins with her first day at work and having to shave a corpse.
But as I said her book is also one which seeks to bring about change. Critiques of the funeral industry are not new. Just over half a century ago Jessica Mitford wrote The American Way of Death, an exposé of the funeral home industry in the United States. Mitford argued that death had become too sentimentalized. More importantly it had become highly commercialized, and funeral homes were systematically overcharging customers, making them pay far more than necessary for the funeral and other services. Doughty has sympathy with Mitford’s view. She cites the example of Dr. Hubert Eaton and his Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, the first of a chain of cemeteries in Southern California. An article in a 1959 issue of Time called Forest Lawn the “Disneyland of Death”. The cemetery, which attracts over a million visitors per year, is the resting place of many stars including Clark Gable, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Pickford, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, W.C. Fields, Sammy Davis Jr., Walt Disney and Nat King Cole. Dr. Eaton was convinced that most current cemeteries were “unsightly, depressing stoneyards”. He wanted to create one that would reflect his optimistic beliefs. His vision would become highly influential.
But, Doughty’s critique of funeral practices is different to Mitford’s. She wants to see more honesty about death in our culture. She believes that death has been hidden from our lives for too long. We need to be able to talk about it in a more open, honest way. That death is hidden is true. However, I am relieved that we are not living in the medieval period, where death was all around us.
Doughty sees modern crematories as impersonalised, industrial environments. She describes the body going into large industrial machines. She was often alone; the victim’s relatives were nowhere to be seen. From my limited experience in the UK and Spain this is not the way it is done in Europe. There were occasions, known as witness cremations where the families were present. She sees this as a vital part of the process, the family sitting there, spending the final moments with their loved one. Finally they pushed the button to send the body into the flames. Doughty thinks that this was an incredibly powerful experience for the family because they took responsibility for the body.
Doughty is not a fan of embalming. She talks about how the American funeral industry was essentially built on is the practice. She feels that we should be moving towards not embalming unless it’s absolutely necessary. It is an “unnatural” process, and can be an expensive for the family. She prefers a more natural approach big vault and caskets are also superfluous. The body can go straight into the ground in a shroud or decomposable casket, allowing it to go back into the earth. She also is an advocate of having the body at home, bypassing the funeral director and the mortuary entirely. In this way you will see keep it in your home, you get to see it change in little, subtle ways. You can see almost the life leaving as the body gradually grows colder. This person that was a part of your community and a part of your life is no longer going to be around. I am not sure I could get used to this idea.
The Guardian did a piece last year, Avoid the funeral sting: how to die for less than £1,000, which looked at how to spend less than the £3,456, which the average funeral now costs. According to the article, prices had risen more than 80% in the previous ten years. Once you include the extras such as flowers, wreaths, catering and venue hire, somewhere in the region of £2,000, you are talking of a figure approaching £5,500. The newspaper has an alternative including cardboard coffins.
The ultimate free funeral is to bury your loved one at home, perhaps in nothing more than a blanket. You do need to own the land outright – it cannot be mortgaged – and an amendment needs to be added to property deeds. You do not even need to advise your local authorities. However, this may be a good idea as this warning from the Natural Death Centre illustrates:
“As private land burial is not a common event, it is quite likely to attract attention and if you give your local police advance notice of the funeral they will not be wrong-footed into suspecting some improper act.”
I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that this is a depressing read. There is a serious critique, but it is delivered in a breezy style. The text is sprinkled with religious, cultural, anthropological, philosophical and mythological references. You can see some of them in this post. She has also founded The Order of the Good Death, a death acceptance organization in 2011. The organisation, which takes its name from the Brazilian Order of Our Lady of the Good Death held its first “death salon” in Los Angeles in 2013
Her YouTube series Ask a Mortician, which she began in 2011, humorously explores morbid and sometimes taboo death topics such as decomposition and necrophilia. At the moment she has more than 40 clips. the site, whose slogan is You got death questions, we got death answers, has had nearly three million views.
I will leave you with a link to a couple of the 44 videos on her YouTube channel: