Adrienne Glenn: What was your very first experience with death?
Caitlin Doughty: My first experience with death was when I was about eight years old and I saw a small child fall off a balcony, presumably to its death. It was absolutely traumatic at the time, and caused me to have a lot of mortality fears I didn’t even know were there until I started working in the death industry. I wish someone at the time had told me, “It’s ok, this is what death is and how it happens, you don’t need to be afraid.” That sort of honesty is my mission now.
AG: What led you to this career choice?
CD: I had always been very attracted to the macabre, but in a very academic way. I studied Medieval History in college, but became fixated, after graduating, on the idea that I could actually put my all of my interests into practice. I decided I wanted to be a crematory operator and just wouldn’t give up until someone interviewed and hired me. From the second I started working at a funeral home I knew that this was what I would be doing for the rest of my life.
AG: Tell us a little bit about the average day in the life of a mortician…
CD: There are lots of different types of things morticians do. I’ve done everything from cremating bodies, to driving around a van that held 12 corpses at a time, to meeting with families. Currently my job is a little more bureaucratic (dealing with the coroner, filing death certificates, arranging cremations, etc.) but I finally have a nice office that isn’t covered in dust from the crematory!
AG: What is your favorite thing about being a mortician?
CD: That I can be a calm, competent resource at a time when people feel like everything is terrible and out of control in their lives.
AG: Do you miss Six Feet Under as much as I do?
CD: Six Feet Under was really a fantastic show. I think when people ask me about it they expect me to say “Ugh, yeah but it’s TV, that’s not what a REAL funeral home is like.” But, actually, it was incredibly well researched and accurate. One of my former coworkers was one of the funeral consultants on the show.
AG: What is the Order of the Good Death all about?
CD: The Order of the Good Death is about bringing people together who believe that interacting with death is an important part of life. The mission is to have people find out what fears and reservations they have about death, especially the fears they are in denial of, and see if they can’t bring them out into the open and look at them realistically. Death is really a quite nice, fair guy once you get to know him.
AG: In the age of “green” do you think we can get people to go green in death too?
CD: I usually use the term “natural” burial, which is what they call it in the UK. It’s a shame to call it green burial because it makes it sound like it’s just part of a fad, like a Prius or biodegradable coffee cups. When, in reality, opening the earth and putting a body in has been how humans have handled dead bodies for thousands of years. It’s not a modern concept, it’s a throwback to older funeral traditions.
AG: As someone who lives life with death (wait, what?), has it shown you any glimmer of an afterlife?
CD: It’s had quite the opposite effect, actually. When I first started preparing bodies I always expected a cold, clammy hand to shoot up and seize my arm. But corpse after corpse has just been very… dead. Dead bodies are dead bodies. There is no special magic or otherwordly presence to them. They are powerful symbols to the living but realistically they are just peaceful former humans.
AG: You look at death so scientifically, but do you personally believe in any sort of an afterlife?
CD: I do not, no. I think when you die the film strip in your brain flaps off the reel and the story is over for you. I personally find that thought very comforting. I’m not a militant atheist, I have respect for ritual and belief. I just don’t believe our minds are separate from our bodies.
AG: How many Ask a Mortician Webisodes are there, and what’s the
craziest question someone’s asked you?
CD: There are three now (probably more by the time you go to print). Some of the questions are a little out there, but still totally valid: e.g., “Could I keep grandma’s skull on the mantle?” and “Could I tattoo a body after the person is dead?”
AG: Are you the girl that picks up dead seagulls on the beach to inspect them?
CD: Certainly, I am. And take pictures if there is a camera handy. Sometimes it can backfire. Let’s just say you shouldn’t put a dead baby coyote in the trunk of your car until you’re sure decomposition hasn’t set in yet.
AG: What does mortality mean to you?
CD: Mortality is everything to me. It’s the absolute driving force behind everything we do in our lives. The reason we want to make art or have children is all because we know, even if we try to deny it, that life is short and largely out of our control.
AG: I am loving your Deathstination essays; are you willing to take location recommendations from all of the new fans Dark Beauty Magazine is going to bring you?
CD: Are you kidding, of course! There is nothing I love more than a good morbid travel site. If I had $25,000 and a free year of life I would spend it traveling the world to study catacombs and charnel houses and burial grounds and death sites.
AG: Any new projects on the horizon we can look forward to?
CD: Absolutely. I’ll be writing and doing videos for an online journal called Fortnight, which features young innovators in traditional fields of work. Lots more videos, content, and new ways for people to become involved as members of the Order.
AG: Do you have a plan for your remains after death?
CD: It’s always changing, I’m really attracted to the idea of decomposing naturally, not using embalming to try to stop the process. I’ve thought about decomposing in a glass coffin where people could come by and watch it happen. Or perhaps just out in a field somewhere where it’s just me and the sun and some worms. If I was cremated I would want it to be on an open-air pyre, like the Indians or the Ancient Greeks.
AG: Honestly, have you ever taken a self iPhone shot of you and a dead person?
CD: I’ve never taken photos with anyone dead, because would you want someone taking LOL pictures with your deceased family member? It’s also a one-way ticket to getting fired-ville. The only time I’ve taken pictures of a body is when the son was like, “I’m in another state but need to know my mother is really dead, please text me a picture.” Texting someone a picture of their dead mother is a very strange experience.