Mortician, author and death acceptance activist Caitlin Doughty thinks American attitudes toward death are, by and large, “toxic.”
Doughty founded the organization The Order of the Good Death to help change those attitudes. She also hosts the YouTube series “Ask A Mortician” and has written two books on the subject: New York Times bestseller “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and the new book “From Here To Eternity,” which finds the author traveling the world to learn how death is treated in other cultures.
Doughty, a University of Chicago graduate, speaks in Evanston on Saturday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. She spoke with Chicago Tonight ahead of her appearance.
How did you first get interested in death?
I wouldn’t say that death, at first, interested me. I would say that I was more obsessed with it! When I was really young, probably about 8 or 9, I witnessed a young girl fall off a second story balcony at my local mall. I became really, really obsessed with the idea of everyone around me dying – my parents, my parakeet, my grandparents, my friends. That developed over time into more of a genuine interested in death. What I found as I got older is that it was less scary to think about death the more that you knew about it, and the more that you talked about it in terms of anthropology and history and art. It was safer to be interested in death that way than to be obsessed with the idea of everyone I love dying all the time.
What do you think of American attitudes toward death? It often seems like a taboo subject.
I think the American avoidance of death is toxic. [It’s like] the old psychology experiments where they say, “Don’t think of a purple cow! No matter what, don’t think of a purple cow!” And what are you thinking about? A purple cow. All day, every day.
I think the imagination comes up with things that are far darker than the reality when it comes to death. When you adopt an attitude that’s more accepting, that lets yourself even enjoy being interested in death, and the way that it affects culture, and the way that it affects all of our daily lives, I think you develop a relationship with it that’s much more casual, much more friendly, and much less fraught.
Have you been interested in how other countries approach death for a long time, or did something recently spark your interest?
I was interested in that before I even started in the funeral industry, which is 10 years ago at this point. When I was in college I was a medieval history major, and I was really interested in the way they used to depict bodies and funeral customs in the late medieval period. This has been a long-term interest of mine. But I did so much with the American funeral industry – that’s what my first book was about – that I didn’t really think I would ever be able to do this. At a certain point, you move further and further into your life and you get bolder and things become clearer.
As far as where I ended up going, it really was places I knew that an average journalist or an average tourist couldn’t go. It had to be a way that I knew I could be respectful, too, so that someone was always there to introduce me, and explain what I’m doing so that I wasn’t busting in and going like, “Oh, that’s your dead dad, huh? Crazy!”
What country’s practice that you weren’t familiar with would you like to see take root in the U.S.?
I think the biggest influence on me was Japan. They’re such a technologically advanced country and they’re so similar to the U.S. in that way – it’s not a rural part of Indonesia, this is Tokyo. But they still have the two things that I really think the U.S. funeral industry is lacking: one, real contact with the dead body. Wakes at home, sitting with the body, not being afraid to just hang out with a dead body a little bit. And two, innovation. Technological innovation, which the American funeral industry is very terrified of. That’s what I got from Japan. We’re not going to end up hanging out with mummies in America. We’re not going to end up saving our skulls on our mantelpieces en masse. But can we implement those things? Absolutely.
What did you discover while writing your book that most surprised you?
What most surprised me is being in places where the death traditions, and really the culture in many ways, are so different from what I am used to – whether it’s people taking out their mummies to clean them and dress them in rural Indonesia, or women who have 40 skulls and mummified heads on a wall in their house that they pray to and make offerings to.
These are so different than what I do, but when you’re there for a little while, and you’re having a conversation and you’re drinking soda, it just gets so normal so quickly. It feels so normal. You don’t feel like you’re a part of something weird or transgressive. It just feels like people having a ritual or doing any sort of activity that just happens to involve corpses.
How do fictional media portrayals of death in the U.S. contribute to our squeamishness around dead bodies? When you see fictional portrayals of a family member interacting with a dead loved one, it’s usually something like a grieving parent on “Law and Order” identifying their child.
The way that you see corpses in America is three ways. One, you see them at an actual wake in person, but they’ve been chemically embalmed, and they have makeup on them, and you’re not really sure if you’re allowed to sit with them, or touch them, or what you’re supposed to do. You see them on TV on a crime show, where it’s some 22-year-old actor who’s been “brutally murdered” or something terrible has happened to them and so it’s, exactly, some parent identifying their child. Or third, it’s a zombie. It’s a decomposing corpse being the scariest thing in the world.
In no circumstances is there a dead body that’s just kind of safe to be around and OK and nonthreatening. When people end up spending time with a dead body, say after someone died in a hospital or in hospice, they’re often surprised at how lovely and simple it is, because they have this perception of the dead body as being this really terrifying thing in whatever form they know it.
Is an increased awareness in the U.S. of our impact on the environment and a desire to reduce our carbon footprint going to contribute to changing the way we treat dead bodies?
I think it’s already happening. People who are dying right now are in their 80s and 90s. They are still interested, many of them, in a more “traditional” burial. They want the casket, they want everyone to come to the wake, but Baby Boomers and Gen Xers and Millennials are saying, “Wait, I drove a Prius, I donated to the Audubon Society, I don’t want a giant metal casket in a giant concrete vault surrounding by chemical-filled body going underground, and what I want is to be buried in a simple shroud, right into the soil.” Or, what I want is something like to be composted. Or, to have aquamation, where I’m using high-heat water instead of natural gas and flame to be reduced to bone.”
They want something that reflects their lives and they’re seeking that out, and there are practitioners like myself who can offer that to them.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope they take away that nobody just disrespects the dead body, in any culture. Nobody doesn’t care. Nobody doesn’t mourn. Everybody does that. Everybody wants to do the best by their relatives. And even if that looks completely different from culture to culture, we don’t get to look at other cultures and say, “Oh, that’s gross, that’s barbaric, that’s disrespectful.”
We need to have a more open mind about how we look at other people’s death rituals – and, hey, maybe even examine our own death rituals in our own country and see if there might be something to learn from other places that have a much more transparent conversation and attitude about death.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.