The funeral industry has a true celebrity, Caitlin Doughty. She is a mortician, a New York Times bestselling author, and a leader in the budding “death positive” movement. Just google her and you’ll see that she is getting lots of attention. I’ve been familiar with Caitlin for a few years since our Justin Nobel first interviewed her for Digital Dying. She is not your father’s mortician.
My newsfeed popped up “Caitlin Doughty Wants You to Have a Good Death.” The article noted that she would be speaking the next day as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival at an event being held just down the road from me. I decided to attend. Ignorantly thinking that this would be a small gathering, I arrived a few minutes before the start time for her talk. As I walked into the Alice Millar Chapel at Northwestern University for the first time I was struck by its large size and the impressive stained-glass windows surrounding the chapel. Equally impressive was that there was an audience of several hundred “youngish” people already there. Hmmm … this is a bigger deal than I had expected.
The talk was moderated by Landis Blair, the artist who illustrated Caitlin’s latest book, From Here To Eternity. Caitlin spoke about her fascination with death, and recounted her experiences traveling the world to learn about the unique ways that different cultures deal with death. She also discussed the death positive movement and the reasons that it seems to be attracting mostly women. Her upbeat attitude and use of dark humor make her discussion of death anxiety-free and entertaining. The audience was definitely engaged. Hands were still raised to ask questions when time ran out.
I find this interest in Caitlin quite remarkable because in the U.S most of us are death-denying and we don’t want to prepare for our own funerals. There is an irony in this aversion to thinking about death considering it is a major focus of our popular culture. Our TV Body Count Studies dramatically illustrated that by studying the portrayal (and numbers) of death on television. In our celebrity-obsessed world, maybe we need a celebrity mortician like Caitlin to open our minds about our death rituals and to make it an acceptable topic of conversation. Certainly, the slow-to-change funeral industry could use a disruptive influence.
Here at Funeralwise.com we are trying to do our part. We are continually developing our content to help people create meaningful celebrations of life and to empower them with the very best funeral planning information and tools.
At the end of her talk, they announced that Caitlin would be signing books so I headed to the lobby where they were selling them. I purchased the last copy of From Here To Eternity. Her other book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes also sold out a few minutes later. I got in line to meet Caitlin and get my book signed. Since I was one of the last to purchase a book I was near the end of the line. It looked like virtually the entire audience had bought a book and wanted to get it signed. From my spot in the lobby, the line extended the length of the chapel, down a couple hallways and into an auditorium. Fortunately, I had the book so I had something to read.
I reached Caitlin an hour and a half later. She thanked me for waiting in line and I confessed that this was the first time I had lined up to get a book signed. I also told her that she had probably made history. After all, when in the history of mankind had hundreds of people ever waited in line to get a book signed by a mortician? She seemed surprised by that, maybe it’s nothing new for Caitlin. But to me it was amazing. Perhaps we’re taking the first steps to changing our perspective on death and dying.