For her “Ask a Mortician” video series Los Angeles mortician Caitlin Doughty has spoken candidly about topics like cat cremation and whether or not corpses soil themselves after death (the answer is yes), this September Norton will publish her much-awaited book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
When I first started this blog five years ago I interviewed Caitlin for a story about the rise in female morticians. With at least a few of her death dreams now becoming reality we recently reconnected…
1. Have you ever witnessed someone die?
When I was about eight I saw a girl fall from the balcony at my local mall. I saw her hit the ground, I heard the noise, I heard the mother screaming. That was a pivotal point in my young life, because at that point I hadn’t really been exposed to death. I had some pretty bad PTSD after that. I think the wisdom my parents had was talking about it makes it worse, don’t keep opening the wound, let the kid get over it and be resilient. That wasn’t the best thing for me. In retrospect, it was also a demonstration of what a first world privilege it was for me to not have to interact with death and violence like that on a daily basis.
Other Great Reads: How to handle grief after an accidental death
2. When was the first time you realized you were going to die?
When I was younger we planted a rose bush in our yard and waited for it to grow, I know this sounds like a parable but it’s a real story. The first rose bloomed, a beautiful yellow rose and I clipped it and took it to school with me. During the day it started to wither and die. I remember sitting on the playground and having this little 6 year-old existential moment, just holding the rose and thinking, ‘Oh my god, this beautiful thing is dying.’ I couldn’t stop it, there was nothing I could do to change it. I had let this flower down. I don’t think it’s bad to have those moments where you realize everything is going to die, it’s just important to have a cultural narrative to back that up. Every flower dies so new flowers can grow, everything regenerates, one day your body will die so it can make new humans. We can’t just have billions and billions of roses overrunning the world, we need to have a rose for a moment.
3. If you could design your own death, what would it be like?
The ideal would probably be a disease that was fast moving enough that there wasn’t a great deal of pain and suffering but slow enough that I could come to terms with it and say my goodbyes and do the important final things one does before they die. I think the lead up time where you can engage with the people around you is important, so something like a heart attack would not be ideal. People change when they know dying is on the horizon, and I relish those conversations and what they mean, having that opportunity would be great. For my last day I would want the people I love to gather around my death bed with good food, a death salon!
4. Would you want to live forever?
Not at all, life is exhausting. I think of death as a reward. And I don’t mean that in a suicidal or fetishization sort of way. I think the conversation around life extension is flawed. The majority of people can’t expect a good quality of life beyond 85. Eventually, you will not have the resources to be cared for. I am not so pro-death that I’m against any sort of intervention or medicine, I just think we’re in a place now where we are unable to take care of everyone we have. And to have privileged people investing millions of dollars to take of themselves does not seem like the right conversation to be having, and not the right place for our resources. People in the life extension movement will tell me, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could live to 500, oh how exciting the future.’ But when you get down to brass tacks the movement is about their personal desire to live longer and their personal fear of death. I cannot think of a better example of death denial at work.
5. Is there one recent death story that has particularly horrified or surprised you?
Recently, there was a controversy over a tumblr site featuring teenagers taking selfies at funerals. All these articles came out talking about these disgusting terrible teenagers who have no respect for anything and I wrote a piece for Jezebel suggesting kids are doing this because they don’t have mourning practices that make sense to them. They don’t have culturally prescribed ways to express their grief, so of course they are going to try and find a way to engage in this really difficult topic, and they are going to use something they engage with on a day to day basis, social media. When I put that out there though the response was, ‘No, you are wrong, these are terrible narcissistic teenagers and society is going down the drain and I can tell you how to mourn and this is disrespectful.’ The overwhelming desire to dismiss my point of view really surprised me. It is easy to say the millennials are terrible, but the question is, where are they getting these habits? Well, they are getting them from a culture that has been written by you. You created social media and gave it to them and desperately wanted them to use it, what else did you think would happen? Every generation creates the generation below it; these teenagers don’t just spring up out of nowhere.
6. What will death be like in the year 2114 ?
I am presenting on just this topic at South by Southwest next month with a woman named Chanel Reynolds, who runs a website called Get Your Shit Together. I think we are standing at the edge of a frontier in our covered wagons, we really don’t know. In my fantasy world, death becomes the only sacred thing, the one thing technology stays out of. Death is the time where you sit with the body and sit with the family and you handle the death itself in this very raw and real way. We are moving into this world where technology is in every place, but I think the actual ritual of death should be free of that. In my fantasy, it is only humans taking care of dead humans, and it is a responsibility and a ritual that people take very seriously. As opposed to now where it is a responsibility that people don’t take very seriously and would prefer not to be involved with.
7. It seems to me like you’re advocating that death itself become a certain type of religion?
Increasingly, religion’s rituals are failing people. Christianity is a good example, lots of Christians believe in Christ but the embalmed body at the stodgy church doesn’t fulfill them. I think we need to develop new death narratives. Sacred rituals need not be tied to religion. You don’t need a complex belief in gods and the afterlife to believe it is important to be present with the body. Being with the body and taking care of the body would be my answer to anyone who says their death rituals are not working, or that they don’t have a real connection to mortality. The connection to your own mortality is the connection of your life. Other people come and go, but the relationship that stays is the relationship with your own life, and the relationship with your own death.