What a wonderful way to go
For Caitlin Doughty, death is something to embrace rather than recoil from, finds Kim Kelly
One of the most compelling scenes in Caitlin Doughty’s new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, takes place in the small town of Crestone, Colorado. The body of a woman – who is called Laura – is carefully wrapped in a coral-tinted shroud and placed on a smooth concrete pyre. The scent of burning juniper branches perfumes the air. Surrounded by those who’d known and loved her (as well as the author, who’d been invited to observe), the body gradually turns to ash beneath. The ceremony takes place at the only open-air pyre in the western world and is one of alternative funerals that Doughty explores.
“It was an honour, but to be honest, I was pretty jealous,” Doughty said when I asked her how it felt to have witnessed the final goodbye. “There was so much ritual power to it. It made me think about how many cremations I’ve witnessed in my life that were in big industrial machines, and how it doesn’t compare at all. I would be lying to say that I didn’t want this for myself and for the people I help as well.”
Last month when we spoke, Doughty’s new book had just landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Doughty, who currently helms a progressive non-profit funeral home called Undertaking LA (and who documented her former exploits as a crematory operator, funeral director and mortician in her bestselling debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory) has emerged as a sort of de facto figurehead for the steadily growing death-positivity movement.
Since launching a “death acceptance” collective with the aim of promoting more open, honest engagement with death, The Order of the Good Death, back in 2011, she has had numerous speaking engagements to discuss destigmatising death, dying and the deceased. She first gained public notice thanks to her wildly popular Ask a Mortician video series on YouTube, but has truly found her niche as a spokeswoman for the concept of death positivity, which involves embracing one’s own mortality, accepting the inevitability of the end, and working towards having a good death, one that comes free of pain. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a fascinating, often hilarious warts-and-all look into the business of death, and now, with From Here to Eternity, Doughty’s mission is simple: to learn how to change the American death industry and our own attitudes towards death for the better.
Doughty may cut a sombre figure, but her sense of humour and worldview are far more impish than diabolical. She peppers her sentences with selfdeprecating wisecracks and her writing will give you the giggles as well as send a chill down your spine. But her willingness to joke about death never comes across as ghoulish or flippant. Her comfort with the subject and all of its attendant awkwardness seems rooted in her bones, something that’s as much learned as it is intentional.
“Death is such a difficult topic,” she says. “Who wants to sit down and talk about their advanced directive, or talk about what somebody wants done with their body when they die? That just seems like one other emotional burden, so if you’re not treating it with humour and a lightheartedness that makes it seem like not another incredibly emotionally draining task, nobody’s going to do it or have these conversations.”
It’s that level of empathy and self-awareness that enabled her to gain access to people’s most private, sacred rituals during her research for the book, which sees her travel from Laura’s open-air cremation to Indonesia, Spain, Japan, Mexico and Bolivia (as well as North Carolina and California), where she spends time with family members both living and dead.
On her journey, she meets burial icons, bleached skulls and sacrificial pigs in Indonesia’s Tana Toraja mountains; she explores Western Carolina University’s body farm, where scientists work to turn corpses into compost; in Tokyo, she’s invited to pick up a pair of chopsticks and join a family in sorting bone fragments from a pile of ash that was once a loved one. Throughout each experience, she sees how, in each of the other cultures she encounters, death is seen as natural, normal and, in some cases, so unremarkable that sharing a bed with your grandfather’s mummified body seems as mundane as washing your face in the morning. It’s a stark contrast from the American way of death, which Doughty is hellbent on reforming through her own death activism as part of the greater movement, which she and Order of the Good Death director Sarah Chavez are continually working to make more inclusive.
“Every place around the world feels the same kind of sorrow when someone dies,” she says. “One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that I’d hear people say, ‘Oh, they just did this with the body, how disrespectful, they just don’t care about their dead,’ and for me it’s like, ‘What are you talking about? They’re not dishonouring their dead’.”
“If they’re mummifying them, if they’re cremating them on a pyre, if they’re having vultures eat them, all of those things are being done with tremendous respect and honour. So we can’t say what we do is dignified and what everybody else does is disrespectful, that’s ludicrous.”
As a self-described “six-foot [1.8 metres] tall white lady in a polka dot dress”, Doughty took especial care to ensure that her interest in rituals – the majority practiced by people of colour – didn’t feel exploitative or predatory to those who welcomed her into their lives. “That was important to me, because obviously, ‘white girl looks at other cultures and gives opinions’ could go so wrong,” she says. “I think what helped me most is that I already have a somewhat negative view of my own country’s death rituals, specifically the industry that runs death in America, and I’m trying to reform that industry; I saw visiting these other places as looking for inspiration, where I’m looking to them and saying, ‘Help us, please, help us figure this out!”
Ultimately, Doughty hopes that From Here to Eternity will open people’s eyes to alternative attitudes towards death, and other options for their own burial beyond the American way – with all of its chemicals, concrete and nervous, almost clinical, detachment from the physicality of death.
Her comfort with the subject and all of its attendant awkwardness seems rooted in her bones
Hold it … Doughty questions traditional funerals