Obsessing Over Death Isn’t Just For Old People Any More
Caitlin Doughty is a 28-year-old mortician from Los Angeles who’s spent the last few years surrounding herself with death. As a mortician, she specialises in natural burial, home funerals and a cheery plethora of new body disposal techniques, like alkaline hydrolisis – i.e. “liquid cremation”. There’s an explanatory video for that one, which I do NOT like.
Growing up in Hawaii, she demonstrated evidence of a morbid streak from a young age, asking her mum questions like “Mommy, if I was on the edge of that cliff and I fell off and on the way down screamed ‘Mommy, Mommy, I need you. Mommy why won’t you help me?’ and then smashed my body on the rocks, would you be sad?”
Later, when a degree in medieval death rituals and witch trials just wasn’t dark enough (OK, she said it wasn’t ‘tangible enough’, but still), she took a job as a crematory operator, burnin’ up corpses for cash, and never looked back. Last year, she founded the Order of the Good Death, an international collective of artists, academics, writers and ‘death professionals’ creating online and real-world content with “death as their muse”, effectively saturating her work and leisure hours with the Big Sleep. Most people take a passing interest in the concept – it’s something we’re all going to experience, after all – but this level of fascination was intriguing, so I tracked her down to interrogate her about her passion for all things six feet under.
Pia Interlandi is a member of the collective – a fashion designer who creates decomposing burial shrouds and uses them to promote interaction with dead bodies. Photos by Devika Bilimoria.
VICE: So, Caitlin. Death to a lot of people is a bad thing. A bummer, at least. What exactly is a ‘good death’?
Caitlin Doughty: A good death starts when you’re still young. You have to live your life acknowledging that death is inevitable and let it affect your relationships and view on the world. A good death is about planning your death and what you want done with your body and taking delight in it. It’s about the quest to have everything in place – literally and emotionally – when you die. Preparing for death doesn’t mean preparing for some kind of afterlife. Preparing for death is to enhance the life you’re living right now.
Do people think it’s weird that you and other members of the order are all so young? Isn’t worrying about death and decay for people who are, you know, decaying?
If anything, the fact that we’re so young is kind of a gateway drug to get people interested in the movement. Maybe at first they think, “Oh, just a girl and her friends making some wacky Youtube death videos”, but hopefully they choose to go further and see the substance behind it. Every time I talk to someone [who’s] quite elderly, I expect that they’re going to think my ideas are disrespectful or going too far. But most people are just so happy to have someone who wants to speak frankly about mortality that they don’t care.
When you first started at the crematorium, were you creeped out by all the dead bodies?
No, they didn’t creep me out, really, but they’re incredibly strange and powerful. I think that comes from living in a society where we no longer have any interaction with the dead, so dead bodies become taboo and almost mystical.
What’s it like being a mortician in LA? Do you find people treat death differently in a city obsessed with youth?LA is so diverse that, in a 20-minute drive, you can go from celebrity tombs on £100,000 plots to an unmarked grave where the ashes of the homeless and indigent dead are dumped together. It’s really ground zero for the way we deny death in our culture. I like working directly in the belly of the beast because it’s good to see what I’m up against in its purest form.
Jim Doran is an artist who creates miniature death tableaux in Altoid tins and sardine cans.
What’s the deal with the massive outpouring that happens when a celebrity dies versus the quietly respectful way we’re meant to approach non-famous, everyday deaths?
Grief used to be a public demonstration. In the past 75 years or so, we’ve seen a huge shift to hiding grief behind closed doors. We’re lucky if we even get three days bereavement leave if a close family member dies. We’re expected to get over everything almost immediately. So when a celebrity dies, it’s almost like we get to live out proxy grief. We can watch 24-7 news coverage and leave massive flower piles outside Michael Jackson or Princess Diana’s residences and weep and mourn for them. It’s more acceptable in many ways to openly discuss your grief over a celebrity death than it would be to openly discuss the death of your parent or spouse.
Your “Ask a Mortician” web series answers viewer-submitted questions about death. The last one I saw featured you making cupcakes out of ashes based on someone’s desire to be baked into a cake after their death. What do people most want to know about?
People are fascinated by options for our dead bodies – eaten by vultures, mother’s skull on the mantelpiece, placed directly in a hole in the ground. We don’t have many death rituals that really work for us any more and people seem to know that we can do better. But I feel like mean mom when I have to tell people certain things are illegal.
What kind of stuff is illegal?
It’s incredibly difficult to just bury a body in the backyard. Viking funerals are illegal. For the most part, open air pyres are illegal. It’s pretty grim out there for anything other than cremation and traditional burial.
What’s your favourite death tradition?
I have a new favourite every month. Lately, I’ve been really interested in excarnation, where flesh and organs are removed by leaving the dead body exposed on a platform for birds, bugs and the elements. Delivering it back to nature on a silver platter. This is done all over the world, from aboriginal cultures, to the Native Americans, to the Zoroastrians.
Have you had any really bizarre requests from clients?
Someone asked for a piece of his mother’s ear in a glass vial. It’s hard to shock me, but that did the trick.
Wow. So, just a light question to finish off: a lot of nights, right as I’m drifting off, I remember that I’m going to die and feel overwhelmed by THE VOID. Any advice on dealing with that?
Denying the void is the problem. It’s best to embrace it. The concept of sailing off into the nothingness void when you die can be comforting. I hope death is like the film flapping off the end of a film reel, happy white, blank space. Just chill out and float, bros.