Caitlin Doughty isn’t an ordinary mortician. In 2006, Doughty was fresh out of college when her fascination with death took her to a job at a crematory where she drove a van, put makeup on dead bodies, and burned corpses. In the years following, Doughty became the source for addressing morbid questions on the Internet with her web series Ask a Mortician. Her new book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, takes a candid look at the death industry.
I recently spoke with Doughty about her career and why we should be more forthcoming in talking about our own mortality. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Bourree Lam: Tell me briefly about how you got into the death industry.
Caitlin Doughty: I was fascinated by mortality. Most people are, even if they don’t admit it. I thought I would understand it even more if I actually worked with dead bodies, which I hadn’t seen all that many of in my life. I applied for six months to crematories in the San Francisco Bay Area until at last someone hired me. That was seven years ago and I never looked back.
Lam: Is the interview process for a job at a crematory any different than a regular job interview?
Doughty: It wasn’t, really. They want to make sure that you’re a competent person who isn’t going to get them sued, or make a fool of yourself in front of a grieving family.
Lam: What kind of training and license do you need to be a mortician?
Doughty: There’s no easy answer because death care and funeral regulations are run state-by-state. For example, I went to mortuary school in California, but just to get the funeral director’s license I didn’t really have to do that. I could have just taken the licensing exam and poof!—funeral director. Usually there is some manner of apprenticeship followed by big tests, followed by a certain number of "cases" (which is industry lingo for the individual dead bodies).
Lam: What was your day-to-day like when you worked as a mortician?
Doughty: There’s no typical day-to-day. I’ve done everything from cremate bodies, to drive a van carrying eleven bodies at once, to fill out death certificates with families, to sit on the phone with the coroner for hours trying to get a body released. Much of the work is preparing and transporting dead bodies, but most people would be surprised how much bureaucracy is involved. In Los Angeles, where I work, just filing the paperwork is a nightmare of different agencies that don’t work very well together. It’s not a well-oiled machine by any means.
Lam: How popular is cremation nowadays in the death industry? And why?
Doughty: Hugely popular, nearing 50 percent, especially in urban areas. It’s yet to break 15 percent in many places in the South. The traditional funeral industry is always terrified of the “cremation problem” wolf at their door.
As to why it’s so popular, it was branded incredibly well, starting in the 1960s. Many of the baby boomers will say that cremation is the “simple, cost effective, environmentally friendly” option. Which is a party line that has grown and now dominates people’s thoughts when they think about what they want done with their dead body.
The history of how we got to where we are with death is so fascinating, and most people don’t know, they just think that the way we “do” death is how we “do” death. We have a very short cultural memory when it comes to death rituals in and methods in this country.
Lam: How did your career as a mortician take a turn from tradition?
Doughty: I knew almost immediately after I started working in the industry that I wanted the public to see what I was seeing behind the scenes. The environment was so industrial, so removed from families, so behind the black curtain. But the thought of putting myself out there to say it was terrifying, because being a woman on the internet is not always the warm and fuzziest place. It was early 2011 when I couldn’t stand it anymore and felt I was ready, so I started putting things up online.
My boss at my funeral home knew I was doing it, but I don’t think he totally understood what I was doing. He was in a “this darn email!” place, as an old school funeral director. The idea of YouTube videos was not in his wheelhouse.
Lam: What do you want to accomplish with Ask a Mortician and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?
Doughty: The hope is to create an environment where people aren’t afraid to admit they’re morbid, and have questions about death—what’s going to happen to their corpse, what their funeral is going to look like, what a decomposing body looks like, how cremation works. These are all totally natural questions, 2.5 million people die in the U.S. every year after all, but we’ve built up this idea that talking about death is deviant. Death is not deviant, it’s actually the most normal and universal act there is.
Lam: What are you up to now?
Doughty: I have a business called Undertaking LA, which is essentially two licensed morticians telling the public, “you don’t need us!” It’s a way for people who are interested in DIY death, taking care of their own dead, not having to pay large amounts of money to a funeral home, to do most everything—except the actual cremation or burial—themselves. There are people who think that’s ghoulish or terrifying, but that perception comes from a very modern, sanitized, American view of death.
Lam: How can this perception be changed? Aren’t you discounting the fact that people are grossed out and scared to do these DIY funeral tasks?
Doughty: They are grossed out, but that’s because they’ve been told their whole lives that death and bodies are best kept to the “professionals” and that they are dangerous. Most corpses are safer than living bodies. Corpses don’t decompose immediately. They’re not a time bomb of deadness waiting to attack. They’re your mom or your husband, or the shell of them, at least.
Changing perceptions will be an uphill battle (understatement of the year) but just 30 to 40 years ago the cremation rate wasn’t much more than three percent. It was “devil’s work” and “pagan” and “burning you loved one” and “disposal.” But look how the public has come around. It is possible.
Lam: What about the fear of disease? Ebola?
Doughty: Your average corpse is completely safe. Cancer, lung disease, car accident, heart attacks, all the things humans typically die of create a safe corpse. Even a decomposing corpse is safe, as the bacteria causing decomposition are not the bacteria causing disease. If the person did die of some wildly contagious disease, like Ebola or Creutzfeldt-Jakob, they’re not going to be dying at home with their family. They will be in a highly medicalized environment, and the doctor will know if there is any risk to the family. But that’s, obviously, incredibly rare.
Lam: Can you explain the title of your book?
Doughty: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a song from the 1930s. I knew it as a Platters song. The idea was that there was the literal smoke from the cremation machines I was operating, as well as the metaphorical smoke of being swept up in emotion and my changing relationship with death. Plus it just seems to sound good.
Lam: What’s your dream funeral?
Doughty: My dream funeral is one where the family is involved, washing and dressing the body and keeping it at home. When they’ve taken the time they need with the dead person, transporting the person to a natural burial cemetery and putting them straight into the ground, no heavy sealed casket or vault. Just food for worms.