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.