Caitlin Doughty, a funeral director in her early thirties, is on a mission. Her goal? Nothing less than completely changing how we think about death and the customs surrounding it. Her odyssey through the death industry began when she was 23 and started working at suburban San Francisco’s Westwind Crematorium. She had spent her first 18 years in Hawaii and saw her first dead body at age eight when she went to a Halloween costume contest at the mall and saw a little girl plummet 30 feet over a railing. In another century, she reflects, it would have been rare for a child to go that long before seeing a corpse; nineteenth-century tots might have experienced the death of multiple siblings, if not a parent.
“Today, not being forced to see corpses is a privilege of the developed world,” she writes. And if we do see a dead body, it will have been so prettified by mortuary workers that it might bear little resemblance to how the person looked in life. Here Doughty reveals all the tricks of the American trade – from embalming (a post-Civil War development) and heavy-duty makeup to gluing eyes closed and sewing mouths shut – that give the dead that peaceful, lifelike look we like to see at wakes. Compare our squeamishness with the openness of various Asian countries, where one might see dozens of corpses floating down the Ganges or Buddhist monks meditating on a decomposing corpse as a memento mori.
Doughty is in a somewhat awkward position: she is part of the very American death industry she is criticizing – those “professionals whose job was not ritual but obfuscation, hiding the truths of what bodies are and what bodies do.” Although she reveled in her work at the crematorium despite its occasional gruesomeness and seems to believe cremation is an efficient and responsible choice for body disposal, she also worries that it might be a further sign of people’s determination to keep bodies out of sight and out of mind. As anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer noted, “In many cases, it would appear, cremation is chosen because it is felt to get rid of the dead more completely and finally than does burial.”
Could cremation be noble instead? Doughty traces its origins to ancient Roman funeral pyres, as different as could be from the enclosed, clinical environment of a modern crematorium. Two factors led directly to cremation becoming increasingly accepted and popular after the 1960s. One was Jessica Mitford’s book The American Way of Death (1961), which mocked the same Los Angeles area cemetery Evelyn Waugh does in The Loved One, Forest Lawn. The other was Pope Paul VI overturning the Catholic Church’s ban on cremation in 1963. Doughty quotes George Bernard Shaw’s rapturous account of his mother’s cremation in 1913 as proof that it can be not only natural, but even aesthetically pleasing:
And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like Pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over, and my mother became that beautiful fire.
It is rare, however – and, for the workers, nerve-racking – to have witnesses at a cremation. For the most part Westwind worked like a factory, cremating six bodies per weekday. Doughty experienced all sides of the work: collecting dead fetuses from hospitals for free cremation, shaving adult corpses before burning, enduring the stench of decomposing flesh, and taking delivery of a box of heads whose bodies were donated to science. She is largely unsentimental about it all; who is this fairytale witch who speaks of “tossing” babies into the oven and grinding their little bones?
“Handmaiden to the underworld,” she describes herself, and given her medieval history degree and Goth-lite looks, you can see that a certain macabre cast of mind is necessary for this line of work. She also has a good ear for arrestingly witty one-liners; my favorite was “As a general rule, if anyone ever asks you to put stockings on a ninety-year-old deceased Romanian woman with edema, your answer should be no.”
Still, Doughty recognizes the almost unbearable sadness of many of the cases the crematorium sees – the young man who traveled to California from Washington just to stand in the path of a train, the “floaters” found in the ocean, the elderly with oozing bed sores, and the homeless folk of Los Angeles who were cremated and dumped in a mass grave after they were used for embalming practice at her mortuary school. She even considered committing suicide herself on a lonely trip out to a redwood forest.
What has kept her going is the desire to combat misconceptions and superstitions about the dead. As she realized after a potentially serious car accident on the freeway, she has lost her own fear of death, and she wants to help others do the same. This will require getting people talking about death, something she is doing through her online community Order of the Good Death and her Ask a Mortician YouTube videos. She would also like to see people having involvement with dead bodies again, as they did in previous centuries, perhaps by washing their dead relatives or keeping them at home before the funeral rather than having them taken away. “It is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love.” This is not morbid; it’s just planning ahead for an inevitable experience. “We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives.”
The sections of personal anecdote in this book are better than those based on anthropological research – which is not woven in entirely naturally. Ultimately, it’s a little unclear exactly how Doughty plans to change things. She speaks of designing her own welcoming crematorium, an open, airy space that doesn’t suggest a death factory. But it’s enough that she’s part of a movement in the right direction, and beneath her wry tone her passion is clear.
Further reading suggestions: For more on how people are revolutionizing how we think about death, I highly recommend Anne Karpf’s book for the School of Life, How to Age. Other death-themed reads I have particularly enjoyed are The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, The Removers by Andrew Meredith, and A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge. Less effective as a memoir but still interesting for its view of the funeral home business is The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield.
Note: I was originally going to review this book for a British website, so I received a free copy of the UK edition from Canongate. Doughty inserts British statistics and information to increase the book’s relevance to a new audience. She also astutely notes that British funerals minimize interaction with a dead body, something I have certainly found true in the two cremations I have attended in England. The Irish are famous for their wakes, but the British do not have this custom. In fact, when we attended my brother-in-law’s viewing and funeral in America earlier this year, it was the first time my husband (aged 31) had seen a dead body. Although I can see Doughty’s point about a prettified corpse not being representative of what the dead ‘should’ look like, I must also say that the funeral home had done a fantastic job of making him look happy and at peace, like he was sleeping and having pleasant dreams. He certainly didn’t look like a man who had suffered the ravages of brain cancer for four years. The same was not true for my ninety-something grandmother, however, who was nearly unrecognizable.