Perhaps you have stumbled upon one or more of Caitlin Doughty’s Ask a Mortician videos. Perhaps not. I did a few weeks ago when researching something else entirely. (Something in my search terms induced Google to offer them to me.). They prompted me to order her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory. Doughty’s literary education shows in this well-written memoir in which she takes issue with the way we in the West deal (or, more often, refuse to deal) with death. For readers not put off by morbid humor, the book is both intriguing and funny.
Caitlin’s interest in the subject began at age eight when she happened to witness an accident at a two-story mall. A young girl about her own age somehow went over the rail at the top of an escalator. A fall from that height normally wouldn’t be fatal, but by the chance way she landed this one was. “What is most surprising about this story,” Doughty writes, “is not that an eight-year-old witnessed a death, but that it took her eight whole years to do so. A child who had never seen a death would have been unheard-of only a hundred years ago.” The event made her conscious of her own mortality in a way most first world eight-year-olds are not. In the years afterward she became and remained contemplative about mortality and about the modern denial of it. Deny it we do. Every year in the U.S. alone 2.5 million people die, yet to all but their immediate families (those that have such) and the professionals who handle the remains they do so almost invisibly. Only the most dramatic deaths such as those by natural disaster, war, or spree killers impinge on the daily consciousness of most of us.
Despite a liberal arts degree (her thesis was in Medieval literature), at age twenty-three Doughty sought and gained employment at a crematory in Oakland, California. She operated furnaces, went on pick-up calls, and assisted with preparing bodies for viewing; most bodies received by the crematory were processed without viewings, but a significant minority needed to be readied for them. She and her co-workers faced it all, as you might expect, with graveyard humor. Doughty also found herself taking life less for granted. “Everything I was learning at Westwind [crematory] I wanted to shout from the rooftops. The daily reminders of death cast each day in more vivid tones.” The experiences reinforced her belief that our modern way of hiding death from ourselves is not in our own best interests.
Doughty took the crematory job without intending a permanent career in the industry, but she soon decided to pursue one. She went back to school, became a mortician, and went into business. She is a particular advocate of natural burials without embalming or expensive caskets. More importantly, she advocates coming to terms with death as a way of coming to terms with life: “writing our own Ars Moriendi [Art of Dying] for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes.”
Thumbs Up on the book and the message. Her quirky video blogs are worth a look, too.
Caitlin Doughty – Ask a Mortician