An 'alternative' mortician is on a quest for the West to deal with death
Caitlin Doughty: Millennial mortician (©Mara Zehler)
If I ever thought about death before, I assumed, like Hamlet, that I would return to my constituent parts. (There is a nice Sanskrit idiom for dying which translates literally as “go to the five elements”.) But many of the trappings of Western-style, and particularly US-style funerals (embalming, hardwood coffins, vaults) are designed to prevent this for as long as possible — hardly dust to dust.
These, according to Caitlin Doughty, are symptoms of a culture which avoids thinking about death and is obsessed with concealing everything to do with it. Doughty (a licensed mortician) argues that our culture is “death-phobic” — we want to avoid thinking about death, and particularly about dead bodies. She wants us to be “death-positive” — not afraid.
This a mindset which fits neatly with the values that the so-called millennial generation views as important: body positivity, bodily autonomy, bodily self-determination. Your (dead) body, your choice.
Doughty, who is 33, runs a “progressive” funeral home in Los Angeles, Undertaking LA, and hosts a web series on YouTube called Ask A Mortician, covering everything from the morbid (necrophilia, embalming) to the practical (what to say to a bereaved person, what happens to your titanium hip implant in the crematorium). Incidentally, she also wants to reclaim the word “morbid”, since there’s no word for a healthy interest in death. The website of the Order Of The Good Death, an organisation of alternative death professionals which she co-founded, explains: “Not all deaths are created equal . . . A “good death” is personal. A person defines it, a family defines it, a community defines it, a culture defines it.”
From Here To Eternity is a sort of world tour of the alternatives, from a high-tech columbarium in Japan, lined with light-up Buddhas, to the Toraja people in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, who mummify relatives and keep them in their houses for several years before holding elaborate, expensive funerals. But reading about completely unfamiliar traditions takes out all the Freudianism: a death is just a death, the most normal thing in the world. Reading the book late at night, I found myself veering into hippie hypomania: wow, man, I’m really, like, here, I’m really in this thing.
Doughty’s obvious predecessor is Jessica Mitford, whose 1963 book The American Way of Death advocated reform of the US funeral industry. But Mitford’s book was not about preparing for death: her focus was financial and her main target was exploitative practices by the funeral industry. She followed through on her beliefs: she asked for — and got — the cheapest funeral possible. It cost $533.31, of which $475 was the cost of cremation.
Doughty, by contrast, thinks we should have rites, even long, elaborate ones, and that the avoidance of rituals, in the long run, does more harm than good. For her, Mitford is still someone who wanted to avoid thinking too much about corpses. Doughty thinks we don’t allow enough time for grief: we should have the opportunity to mourn close to the corpse: to touch, wash and dress it if wanted, to see a corpse in its natural state. Families should be involved — or at least know it’s possible to be involved — in the preparation of the body, as would have been done in the past. Helping a woman prepare her mother for a natural burial, she points out that this is hardly a new idea: “In the 19th century, no one would have questioned Josephine preparing her mother’s body — it would have seemed strange if she didn’t.”
Embalming emerges as a major villain — it’s intrusive, expensive, and not necessary (according to Doughty). Embalming is compulsory in US mortician training, even for those who don’t intend to offer it. (It’s forbidden in both Islam and Judaism.) There’s also the quest for a reasonable alternative to cremation: crematoria are relegated to industrial areas — hardly appealing places to mourn — and the environmental impact of cremations is significant. A single cremation uses as much electricity as one (living) person does a month; cremation is responsible for 16 per cent of the mercury pollution in this country. (Cremations account for 75 per cent of funerals in the UK.)
One model for a solution could be the Crestone End of Life Project, a community-run open-air funeral pyre in Colorado which uses significantly less fuel than traditional cremation, and sounds wonderful. Never have I wished more to be burned! Another is the Recompose project in North Carolina, which is working on a method of composting dead bodies, but the variables — size of person, water content, etc — make it tricky. Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, says: “Humans are so focused on preventing ageing and decay — it’s become an obsession . . . So decomposition becomes a radical act. It’s a way to say, ‘I love and accept myself’.”
Doughty’s own reaction is that what she wants in death is to vanish. “If I’m lucky, I will disappear, swallowed by the ground.” I have to confess I find this appealing. Other women have expressed similar ideas, such as Patti Smith in her song “Beneath the Southern Cross”, written in the aftermath of her husband’s death: “Oh/To be/Not anyone/Gone . . . To be/ Not here/ But here.” Or Hito Steyerl’s short film How Not To Be Seen, in which she paints herself in green-screen-toned face paint and melts into the background, or the artist Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms”: as soon as you step in you seem to vanish amid thousands of tiny points of light.
Doughty’s repeated concern is that families should feel they are in some way taking care of their loved ones, that they should feel they have been given something meaningful to do. A ritual, a sense of purpose, “holds” you. In traditional Japanese cremations, the family are given large chopsticks and have to pick the bone fragments out of the ashes, in a ritual called kotsuage, which sounds grisly, until you read that in the US system the bone fragments (so-called “cremains”) are ground up in a “Cremulator” (its brand name) to a uniform dust before being returned to the family. The parents of Carita Ridgeway, an Australian woman who was murdered in Tokyo, were unexpectedly faced with this ritual, but didn’t react with horror. They say it made them feel calmer — “as if we were looking after Carita”.