Mortician, medievalist, and video sage Caitlin Doughty tries to change the way Americans think about death.
Located on Santa Monica Boulevard and abutting Paramount Studios, Hollywood Forever is one of Los Angeles’s oldest, most idiosyncratic cemeteries. Marble obelisks tower over squat tombstones of Armenian immigrants, the latter boasting detailed photographic etchings, as if someone managed to render ’70s-era wedding Polaroids into stone. Peacocks amble around the graves of Fay Wray and Rudolph Valentino. Punk titan Johnny Ramone is memorialized with an eight-foot bronze statue of the musician playing guitar. Recently a dilapidated graveyard on the brink of closure, Hollywood Forever has become a vibrant public venue after changing hands in 1998. The cemetery hosts movie nights and a popular Día de los Muertos festival. The rock band the Flaming Lips has played there.
This “is how cemeteries used to be,” says Caitlin Doughty, AB’12 (Class of 2006). “In the Middle Ages, in the Victorian Period, … cemeteries were places where commerce took place, and lovers walked through the graves to meet at night. You had this engagement with the cemetery as a community place, which we don’t really have anymore.” This collision point between somber burial ground and riotous rock venue, a space that survived modern economic realities by resurrecting a medieval communal impulse, was a fitting setting when, on a quickly cooling Friday afternoon last November, Doughty taught me how to die.
Which is entirely in line with her professional and philosophical vision: she prompts strangers to confront, accept, and embrace the inevitable extinction of their personality and dissolution of their body. We almost entirely ignore, repress, or euphemize our own death, but Doughty wants us to not only accept but also rejoice in death, our “most intimate relationship.”
At 28, Doughty may very well be the world’s most famous practicing undertaker. She writes, produces, and stars in the popular web series Ask a Mortician. A recent YouTube commenter named her the “Bill Nye of Death.” Her forthcoming book from Norton, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematory), was the object of an eight-publisher bidding war. The 14 videos in the Ask a Mortician series, in which Doughty wryly answers viewer questions such as “Can a casket explode if it is totally sealed up?” (sometimes), “Do corpses soil themselves after death?” (sometimes), and “Are they going to take my 92-year-old mother’s body and dissolve it in acid?” (no), have been viewed almost 600,000 times. She is also the creator and guiding voice of the Order of the Good Death, a collective of artists, writers, and filmmakers whose work deals with embracing mortality.
Nobody wants to die, but to die and to die terrified are vastly different experiences. As Doughty writes on the website for the Order of the Good Death, her work is about “making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, that pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” She draws a distinction between those feelings and grieving—in fact argues that, freed of death anxiety, we can better grieve loss. “I’m never going to say that you’re not going to have grief, but I feel like when somebody I’m very close to dies, I’m going to be grieving for them,” Doughty says. “I’m not like, ‘this means I’m going to die, what does that mean for the universe, why do people die, it’s not fair.’ I’ve answered those questions, so I can focus on my specific grief as opposed to putting all this other emotional baggage into it.”
With her pale complexion and her Bettie Page hair, it’s easy to think of Doughty as Wednesday Addams all grown up. This comparison trades on the same faulty cartoon engagement with mortality that Doughty wants to lay to rest. Her Ask a Mortician character is one part Dan Savage and one part Vincent Price. In person Doughty is a slightly subdued version of her video persona. She’s droll, laid-back, and eager to talk about how long it takes an unburied body to skeletonize (even with all variables taken into account, we go from fleshy corpse to flinty skeleton with alacrity). She punctuates her more gallows-shaded statements by switching swiftly to a caricatured crypt-keeper voice. It’s this sensibility—approaching death and decomposition with intellectual seriousness and professional knowledge, but via the irreverence of a pop cultural maven—that makes Ask a Mortician so popular.
“I was worried that people would think it was weird or inaccessible,” Doughty says about the series and her other work on death. “But people are ravenous for information because it’s not readily available. If you look up how cremation takes place, how embalming takes place, these sorts of basic questions about the funeral industry, it’s hard to even Google it. … Death is still out there in the ether. It’s the most fundamental thing of our entire existence, the thing that everyone shares and everyone has a deep relationship and deep fascination with, whether they know it or not, and it’s the only thing they don’t have easy access to.”
It’s larger than access, though. Michel de Montaigne famously wrote, “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” The American cast of mind isn’t notably philosophical, and Doughty argues that we have the most corrosive relationship with death, and that this failure deamplifies the beauty of our transient lives. It leaves us, if not scared to death, then very much scared of death. For Doughty Ask a Mortician is a “gateway drug” to inspire deathly contemplation, both existentially and practically. She expends great effort discussing the material destruction of our bodies in the hope that her viewers will actively choose the body disposal method that’s right for them, whatever that may be. Most of all, she wants to disenthrall us from our pervasive death denial.
She has a lot of work to do.
Doughty belongs to the tradition best represented by muckraker Jessica Mitford. Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death galvanized the first major backlash against the American funeral industry. Acerbic and hilarious, it skewered the predatory practices of modern funeral directors. For today’s readers Mitford’s death professionals resemble characters in Glengarry Glen Ross more than caring minders of one’s final passage. She gleefully lays bare how much of what was, and still is, promoted by morticians as both moral and necessary is pure, upselling hucksterism: that embalming is a hygienic process required by law, that more expensive caskets offer better protection. Mitford’s funeral industry employs only jaundiced hacks who fleece the vulnerable.
Doughty reasserts many of Mitford’s 50-year-old claims; both the sentimentality of love and misguidance of morticians prompt mourners to spend too much on rituals they aren’t invested in or on unnecessary burial preparations. Doughty also shares Mitford’s disgust with the ghoulishness of many standard American practices. Though bodies are viewed in many societies’ funeral practices, “The idea of the open casket is pretty specifically American,” Doughty says. “And that really, I think, came with the body-as-product revolution of the embalmers. … One of the things that they were able to sell was the embalmed body. The idea that they were making this body beautiful and lifelike again, and preserving it for eternity. So that’s when it started to become, we’re going to create this ‘memory picture’ with this beautiful embalmed body and then put it in its casket and then present it to you.”
But Doughty is herself a professional mortician—after leaving Chicago she spent a year as a crematory operator before obtaining a mortuary science degree from the Cypress College of Mortuary Science near Los Angeles—and this gives her sympathy toward her colleagues that Mitford lacked. Where Mitford saw avarice, Doughty sees funeral professionals doing what they were taught by well-meaning but often poorly informed faculty. They believe that embalming, despite all evidence, is traditional and necessary. Doughty likens many of her peers to evangelicals with unshakable faith.
Beyond this, Doughty exhumes the deeper history and importance of funeral practices. For Doughty, Mitford, like many funeral industry critics, focuses almost exclusively on the price gouging and disinformation that pervade the profession, ignoring the necessity and benefit of funeral ritual. “My main problem [with Jessica Mitford] is that she really brought on the direct cremation revolution,” Doughty says, referring to the practice of taking a body from its place of death directly to the crematory. It’s a practice she’s spent much of her career engaged in. “It is a valuable service. It is a less expensive service. It’s another way of saying, ‘Take the body away. … Don’t let it rot at all. Turn it to ash. … I don’t want to think about any of the processes that the body would actually go through in a natural way.’ … People in Western society were like, ‘Woo! Even less emotional work that I have to do. … It’s cheaper and I don’t have to go through all that dark murky stuff.’”
Direct cremation, routine embalming, corporate funeral homes, $10,000 “waterproof” caskets, and make-up—these practices, far from traditional, have become standard operating procedure for many Americans. Modern American funeral practices began taking hold during the Civil War when families demanded the return of their fallen loved ones. Embalming, previously used to preserve cadavers for scientific research, was adopted to slow the decomposition of the war dead long enough to transport them over hundreds of railway miles. Realizing the profit potential of the service, undertakers professionalized themselves. Over the past 150 years this wartime necessity transformed into our routine end-of-life practices, to which Doughty objects on several grounds. Formaldehyde is toxic, so an all-natural burial is better for the environment, for instance. And for Doughty the creeping standardization of these practices has aided our death denial and stoked our anxiety. Repulsion and fear will always accompany the idea of personal extinction to some degree, but the lifelessness of the death rituals prescribed by what Doughty terms “corpse capitalism” have made death appear more chilling and clinical than natural.
“In the Western world, you can pretty much count on there being an element of denial in how people are dealing with death,” she contends. “An embalmed body, … it is not an actual dead body in a way. It’s a strange wax effigy that the dead body has become. You’re not really seeing a dead person—you’re seeing an idea of a dead person, a metaphor for a dead person. There’s a distance that is almost the same as closing the casket.” She has set her sights on collapsing this distance, and not merely through charming videos.
Undertaking LA, her new venture, is Doughty’s response. Rather than building a brick-and-mortar business, Doughty is transforming herself into a freelance funeral arranger. She likens herself to a wedding planner. Doughty’s technical knowledge is encyclopedic—she improvises tableside Ask a Mortician monologues effortlessly—but she’s not merely a compendium of macabre curiosities. She knows how to file death certificates and obtain burial permits. She can close eyes and mouths. She understands death’s bureaucracy as well as its history, and with Undertaking LA she plans to be the most collaborative of facilitators. “The family should get the feeling that they are the driving force behind actually taking care of the body and making that experience happen.” Rather than submission to the hidden procedures of the embalming room, Undertaking LA will offer a transparent, collaborative alternative for her clients’ grave concerns. “Ideally at Undertaking LA,” she says, “the people that I’m working with are going to be people who I start the process with before they die. … This is going to be something where that sort of openness is incredibly valued. And the point.”
Doughty thinks anyone who says they don’t care what happens to their body is as enmeshed in denial as the person with plans to cryogenically freeze their head. Not that cryogenics is intrinsically wrong. If you find a way to come to terms with death that comforts you, by all means sign yourself up. What Doughty stresses is clear thinking. If people understood practices like embalming, they wouldn’t be so keen to have their blood replaced with formaldehyde. We do what we do because it’s what’s expected of us. This thoughtlessness estranges us from mortality.
Death consultants such as Doughty will likely never become common. Most Americans who actively prepare for their life’s end—a minority—do so by consulting their church. Habit often dictates this too, which means that many people in our increasingly secular society are victims of a well-meaning peer pressure. It’s just what one does. But as Doughty stresses, there are few things you can’t choose to have done with your remains.
“We’re in some ways in a postritual and postreligious culture, to the point where we don’t really have a lot of rituals that mean a whole lot to us anymore,” she says. “So if we don’t have those, we’re kind of free to create our own. … And we’re not really using that because we’re really scared about what that means to cultural propriety. Just because you wouldn’t do that doesn’t mean that that is not how it could be done.” Detailing the many ways “it could be done” constitutes a large part of Doughty’s passion. Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as liquid cremation; Tibetan sky burial, where the corpse is left out for a wake of vultures to consume; and taxidermy, which is exactly what it sounds like—these are all options that exist in the world.
As for Doughty, she desires the most natural exit: putrefaction.
“Yeah,” she says, “I think the idea of being laid out on a beautiful plot of land and my body becoming a glorious burst of decomposition. There are so many animals designed to eat that. … Nature is so beautifully designed to dispose of us.”
It’s earlier on the same light-blinding day and Doughty sits in a bright café in LA’s Mid-City, eating granola with a side of bacon, cheerfully chatting about how a renegade mortician comes to be in the 21st century.
“Growing up in Hawaii there weren’t a lot of people like me. There weren’t a lot of people who preferred books and conversation to surfing or hanging out at the mall with your friends.” When Doughty was eight years old she saw another eight-year-old fall to her death at her local mall in Kaneohe. “I never really intended to talk about that as much, and it was hard for me to talk about it for a while,” she says, “but now people really like that when they interview me. … It’s almost like, ‘oh, you’ve been dealing with this since you were a child.’ I think that all children are pretty comfortable with death, until they’re terrified of death.”
Which means that most people live on a short continuum of comfort and terror. Doughty thinks people should start young with their death education; schools should teach Death Ed alongside Sex Ed. For each lesson on how STDs are spread, teachers should devote a lesson to how bodies decompose. There are any number of immediate objections to this plan. Doughty works along the fault lines of natural repulsion and cultural taboo, which demands deft navigation. Dissecting cats and frogs is enough to repulse many kids, so the prospect of having them endure exposure therapy with human corpses—her vision taken to its most extreme—lodges in the throat. But coming from her, a tamer Death Ed curriculum feels commonsensical. “In my ideal world,” she says, “there’s one semester of, here’s how the reproductive system works, here’s why you need to wear a condom. … The next semester, this is why people die.”
After doing a lot of extracurricular reading about death and the macabre during high school, Doughty defined herself as a medievalist and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where, her alumnus grandfather boasted, “you go to think.” Her BA thesis, “In Our Image: The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory,” sums up her intellectual preoccupations during her time on the quads. She also did a bit of theater at UChicago, an experience that informed her professional and personal goals. “I had this idea that I wanted to do macabre spectacle theater,” she says. “I wanted people to experience 3D death. So I decided that if I had a funeral home, that’s kind of the ultimate macabre spectacle.” And with that Doughty decided that she needed to become a mortician. She moved to San Francisco, where she stopped reading about charnel houses and started working in one. Crematory work is grueling. Modern crematory furnaces burn between 1,600 and 1,800°F. Workers haul bodies and smash bones. For Doughty, who had no hands-on experience with corpses, this “dump into practice” was brutal
“I started at this crematory and it was immediately like, wah wah wah. … It’s not delightfully macabre. … It’s like, ugh, it’s a rotting corpse and I’m, like, grabbing and its flesh slips off its hand as I’m trying to haul it onto a table.” In art and literature the medieval macabre features dancing, decomposing corpses confronting the living, saying things like “‘As I am, so you shall be, King and pauper.’ … You can read that, and understand that, and be like, that’s good theory, that makes sense,” Doughty says, “but when you actually see your naked decomposing corpse and you actually experience the despair of the king or the pauper, that’s a whole different ballgame.”
Doughty’s response to the crematory work was a radical version of how most of us confront death. After spending years studying mortality as theory, Doughty felt she understood more than she actually did; after living with mortality for X number of years, most of us also assume we’ve got it nailed. Then one day we endure a car crash, or suffer a fall, or just get old, and the terror descends.
Dissatisfaction with her knowledge only worsened while she was in mortuary school. Professors taught the technical skills to prepare a cadaver for presentation or incineration, but the curriculum lacked any psychological preparation for dealing with a career managing a ceaseless flow of death, much of it ugly. “Here’s your freezer full of bodies,” she says, describing her work. “You’re going to cremate six of these a day. You’re going to put needles through their face to close their mouth. You’re going to shave them. You’re going to dress them in little suits. You’re just going to do all of these things with these bodies. Grind their bones. … But I didn’t really have too many people to talk to about this. So that’s kind of when I went back to the theory.”
Doughty found French historian Philippe Ariès’s The Hour of Our Death (1981), a vast history of Western funerary traditions, and Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death (1973), a Freud-indebted, anti-Freudian psychoanalytic polemic that argues man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality is the essential problem in civilization. These were her guiding texts during her period of “tangible weeping and gnashing of teeth and rending of my clothes.”
As she learned embalming during the day and read during the night, Doughty began making connections. Her experiences in the crematory and mortuary school forced her to confront her own mortality. Doughty didn’t grow up particularly religious. She attended an all-girls Episcopal school, but not out of any personal or familial dedication to doctrine. What she gleaned from her religious schooling was a set of affirming cultural assumptions, morbid fantasies notwithstanding: that good things happen to good people, that if you live a good life you die at peace, surrounded by people you love. Her work had obliterated these foundational comforts. “Here are all of these indigent dead. Here are all of these dead babies,” Doughty remembers, her droll sensibility receding for a moment. “Here are people I’m cremating that may have had large families, but none of that family is there. It’s just me, raking their bones out.”
The result of Doughty’s work and thinking during her mortuarial career is best summarized by a concept she features at the Order of the Good Death website: the ecstasy of decay. Death may be hideous, and grieving may be excruciating, but one can’t fully live without the acceptance that she now advocates. “The ecstasy of decay is … kind of like the idea of the sublime, in the sense that if you are really engaging with your mortality … it opens you up to a broader emotional spectrum than you normally have,” she explains. “Most of us are kind of living in this middle world, in a very small range of emotions.”
Or, as she said later, embracing the brute facts of death is painful, but once you do, the sunsets are beautiful. And so is the contemplation of death. During the time I spent with Doughty she proved reliably frank and honest, only once hesitating with a question. When pressed to explain why she could love life yet appreciate death, she said “If I live out the normal course of my life, … I think that it’s almost a reward after a long hard life that you get to slip off into this really safe nothingness. Almost like reaching enlightenment where your brain just clears, and it’s just happy white space. … I can’t imagine a better scenario.”
Michael Washburn writes about books and culture for the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Globe, and other publications. He is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His Twitter account is @WhaleLines.