Each week, for the next seven Wednesdays you’ll get a new episode of Death in the Afternoon; a podcast about all things mortal. You can listen (and subscribe!) on iTunes or Spotify.
What can I expect from Death in the Afternoon?
Our mission is to educate our audience about death in a unique, relatable, and entertaining way; to further open up conversations about death in a death phobic culture. And sometimes (ok, all the time) let things get delightfully bizarre.
From our podcast you can expect:
- The surprisingly heartwarming tale of a woman who just couldn’t say goodbye to her dead family.
- Baffling, chilling, and bizarre stories of when people die in a cult.
- When embalming goes right, wrong, and WTF.
Plus many more stories plucked from current events, our favorite historical incidents, and death folklore. You can listen to our Season One trailer here.
For each episode of Death in the Afternoon we’ll publish a blog with images, additional reading, watching or listening, and behind the scenes notes about the making of each episode.
Welcome to our second episode, Crematory Whoopsies
Episode description: Mistakes happen. Cremations happen. But few things capture our morbid imagination like cremation mistakes happening. Whether it’s the horror of cremating your coworker, a misplaced corpse on the way to America’s first modern cremation, or plumes of “human remains particulate” interrupting your Best Buy shopping experience, nothing fans the flames of our phobias like a cremation blunder. This week we talk about things that can go right, wrong, and sideways when you’re in the business of cremating corpses.
Several times a year we receive dozens of emails per day about a shocking deathy story making headlines. This month for example, we’ve been inundated with questions and press requests about both the kids baking grandma’s ashes into cookies, and the discovery of the remains of infants in an abandoned funeral home . But the story we’ve gotten the most questions about is one we’ve seen more than once. In this episode we get to the bottom of the story’s most recent incarnation, and end up falling down a rabbit hole, that leads us to a disturbing and unexpected revelation.
In this episode it is also revealed that Louise once went to school next to a crematory. Here’s Louise to tell us more about that:
I mention in the podcast that I went to school next to a crematory for years and had no idea. My mom knew, but it was no big deal to her, she actually liked it.
Death positive before there was death positive, my mom thought it was a great part of the neighborhood – you had your local coffee shop, your local bakery, and your local crematory. I remember her finally telling me about it on the way to school one day, after I’d been attending that school for four years. I was around 10 or 11.
“You know, that building is a crematorium.”
“It’s where dead people go to be burned to ash if they don’t want to be buried. You don’t rot in the earth. I want to be cremated.”
“Yes. I want to be ashes and I want to be scattered! I want to be in the wind!”
She was so excited about it, and I wasn’t scared or grossed out. I remember my mom’s enthusiasm. She seemed so happy.
But when I told my friends about the crematorium, I remember the “Ew gross!” comments or the looks of fear. My friend Marisa thought it was cool though – shout out to Marisa!
I do remember my mom talking to one of the other moms, a woman decked out in blue spandex and matching blue eyeshadow (it was the ’80s y’all), and that mom saying in a hushed tone, “Is this something we should we be, I mean…WORRIED about? I mean…should we talk to someone about…you know…SAFETY?”
I think my mom laughed at her. Such is her way.
Anyway, my mom’s reaction to the friendly neighborhood crematory is probably one of the reasons I am the way I am. It wasn’t scary, it was just another service the community provided. And my mom was all for it.
In Sarah’s segment this week we learned the road to getting cremation legalized and accepted as a form of disposition wasn’t easy. Here’s Sarah to talk a bit more about cremation, and the pioneering women behind it:
It isn’t often that someone can come up with a piece of death history or trivia that Caitlin “Granger” Doughty isn’t familiar with, but I’m proud to say I’ve been able to do it a few times in the past several years, including that thing about the healing properties of decomposing whales, the tradition of telling the bees when someone dies, and the saga of cremation pioneer Henry Steele Olcott, featured in this weeks episode.
As you’ll hear in the podcast, when the idea of cremation was first introduced it was viewed as “unchristian” and “undignified.” It’s interesting to note that today, we’re seeing an eerily similar reaction from “powerful groups” that are fighting to oppose “water cremation” or aquamation, a more eco-friendly form of disposition. “Powerful groups” meaning male politicians and the church two entities who have a long history of policing women’s bodies, even when they’re dead. Body positivity and the fight for rights to make decisions about our own bodies and how we identify does not stop at death. MY CORPSE. MY CHOICE.
Women would play an influential role in paving the way for cremations in the U.S. (much like the women/femmes of the death positive movement today!), as many viewed their advocacy for cremation as their moral duty to uphold public health and safety, especially considering care for the sick and dying typically fell to women.
Here are a few notable cremation activists:
One of the ways in which American women advocated for cremation was to be among the first to sign their future corpses up for the process (can we repeat history with aquamation, home funerals, or recomposition? Si, se puede!). Often, the first bodies cremated in crematoriums throughout the country belonged to women, and in several instances their bodies were held in storage until a crematory had finished construction. Some of these first crematories still stand today, and even honor these pioneering women, like, Barbara Schorr, whose portrait hangs in the chapel at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.
Here in Los Angeles, at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, (which, by the way, was the first cemetery here that allowed burials of all races and religions), the first crematory in the west was built, (it was the second in the U.S.), and, you guessed it, the first person cremated there in 1886, was a woman named Olive A. Bird.
California’s first licensed female architect, Julia Morgan is most well known for her work on Hearst Castle, but throughout her career she would design hundreds of structures all over California, including Oakland’s first crematory. It was here that many women were employed to support and advise families, as well as to help create meaningful rituals and memorial practices around cremation.
Perhaps the most well known cremation activist was feminist and suffragette, Frances Willard, a fascinating figure who stated that “Politics is the place for women.” According to the Cremation Association of North America, the following words from Willard, can frequently be found on plaques hanging in crematoriums across the U.S.:
I have the purpose to help forward progressive movements even in my latest hours, and hence hereby decree that the earthly mantle which I shall drop ere long – shall be swiftly enfolded in flames and rendered powerless to harmfully effect the health of the living.
Death in the Afternoon is a podcast written, researched, and developed by Caitlin Doughty, Sarah Chavez, and Louise Hung of The Order of the Good Death.
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and funeral home owner in Los Angeles, CA. Along with Sarah and Louise she runs The Order of the Good Death and the Good Death Foundation, orgs that spread the death positive gospel around the world through video series like Ask a Mortician, blogs, bestselling books, and now, a gosh darn podcast!
Sarah Chavez is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death. As the child of parents in the entertainment industry, she was raised witnessing choreographed Hollywood deaths on soundstages. Her work has been influenced by her unique life and weaves together the relationship between death and food, feminism, Mexican-American death rituals, and the strange and wondrous history surrounding the culture of death itself.
Louise Hung is a writer, researcher, and community manager for The Order of the Good Death. While she can usually be found hunched over her computer working on video scripts for Ask a Mortician, Louise has also been known to tap out a few words about death in folklore, history, pop culture, and Asian or Asian American communities.
Editor and composer: Dory Bavarsky
Engineering: Paul Tavener