Interview: Caitlin Doughty’s candour with death

Former mortician turned author Caitlin Doughty. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Former mortician turned author Caitlin Doughty. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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CAITLIN Doughty has spent more time with dead bodies than many of us would ever want to. But for this mortician in death there’s life writes Claire Black.

I’m not sure how many of us can identify the moment that a seed was planted which would become our lifelong passion. I’m not even sure how many of us have a lifelong passion. Caitlin Doughty has, though, and she is able to pinpoint almost exactly the moment it took hold. She was eight years old and she was in a shopping mall in Hawaii. It sounds exotic, but that’s just where she grew up. From the second floor of the mall she saw her dad and waved to him. But she saw something else too: “Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little girl climb up to where the escalator met the second-storey railing. As I watched, she tipped over the edge and fell 30 feet, landing face-first on a laminate counter with a sickening thud.” It was a moment of trauma. It was a moment that both terrified and fascinated her. It is a fascination that has lasted throughout her life.

Caitlin Doughty's book draws on her experience of the crematorium business in San Francisco. Picture: Contributed

Caitlin Doughty's book draws on her experience of the crematorium business in San Francisco. Picture: Contributed

Sitting in a sunny London flat, with a view across Whitehall, Doughty doesn’t look like someone who is fascinated by death. In a stripy dress and trainers, eating chicken curry from a carton, with long dark hair and a heavy fringe, she looks more like someone who works in a cool vintage shop or a tattoo parlour. But death has been her interest since that fateful day in the mall. As a teenager when she volunteered at a hospital she picked the mortuary as the department for her. When she got to university she studied medieval history and after college she devoted herself to getting a job in a crematorium. She succeeded. And now she has written Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – And Other Lessons from the Crematorium, based on her experience of six years of work in a crematorium in San Francisco.

Are you already thinking how morbid, how distasteful, how unnecessary? I must protest. There is nothing morbid about Doughty’s book, part memoir, part plea for a different understanding of death, it is absolutely and utterly life affirming. Doughty may be obsessed by death, but she is very much on the side of life. She wants us to find better ways of accepting our mortality in order to live well.

It’s true that the book is graphic – it begins with rookie Doughty being given a pink disposable razor with which to shave the face of a recently deceased man she calls Byron. Her job in the crematorium is to prepare bodies for cremation. She also collects those bodies from homes and hospitals. It’s gruelling work. I lost count of the number of times I found myself feeling grateful that there are people who want to do it, particularly people like Doughty who is full of compassion and humanity. I also admit there were moments I felt a tiny bit queasy. Doughty pulls no punches in her descriptions of what dead bodies are like, their texture and colour, their weight and feel. Nothing is off limits. The smell of putrefaction is, she writes, a combination of liquorice, citrus, off wine and rotten fish. And yet all of it is written and spoken (Doughty has a hugely popular series of YouTube videos called Ask the Mortician) with the utmost respect. My occasional squeamishness wasn’t Doughty’s fault, it’s because we have become so terrified about death (actually not even just death, about ageing too – why do you think we spend so much time and effort trying to avoid it?) that we can hardly bear to contemplate just the reality of it.

“Most people have a problem talking about death and dying and I don’t think it’s their fault,” she says. “We inherited this problem. I didn’t have enough information, I wasn’t empowered enough when I was a child to take this on – there is no eight-year-old smashing societal taboos – but when I had an educational background and an experiential background to back up what I was saying it meant I was less worried about making people uncomfortable. It’s not that I actively want to make them uncomfortable but if someone now tells me that I shouldn’t be talking about this, I have a whole litany of reasons as to why I should.” She smiles.

For Doughty, the crucial question is about the cost to us of hiding death. Not the financial cost although she’s pretty good on that too – the commercialisation of the funeral industry has its fair share of answers to provide in how this culture of “death denial” has come about – but the emotional and psychological cost of becoming, as we have, both more distanced and more frightened of dying. Funerals are now euphemistically referred to as “commemorations of life”. The process of our death rituals – choosing coffins and cars, flowers and music – has become yet another process of consumption.

“What we are gaining by hiding it away is a slim amount of comfort for a short amount of time,” she says. “What you gain from interacting with it before it happens and when it happens is a much longer term, better accepting relationship with the specific death and death in general.”

It’s not that she wants to browbeat us into changing our perception of death and mortality, but she wants to make the case that we will live better if we do. “I just so fully believe that talking about death and dying is so the right thing for our society that I’m almost a little proselytising about it,” is how she puts it. And Doughty is not alone. There is a small but growing movement of people who want to bring death out of the shadows and into our lives as it once was and still is in certain cultures. They want to find alternative ways to talk about and treat death. They want to bring it out of the hospital wards and care homes. We are all going to die so let’s find ways of dealing with it that might be better, healthier and more healing.

Doughty isn’t looking to blame anyone for how things are, despite not exactly being popular in the funeral home industry in America. She’s just keen to make things better. “The problems we have with death come from the funeral homes and the public together, working together, playing off of each other as to what consumer demand is and what the funeral homes are pushing,” she says. “It’s almost like an unhealthy co-dependent relationship where they’ve influenced each other in a bad way and maybe they need to spend a bit of time apart.”

In reading her book, you will learn about things you could never have even imagined. The trocar, a “lightsaber-sized piece of metal” that is used to draw out the fluid from the body cavity before pumping in embalming fluid. “Desquamation”, the process by which the skin slips away from the body. If death is a topic engulfed in euphemisms, her task is to shake it free by straight talking and directness. But you will also learn about why she believes that families should have the option of spending time with the body of their loved one and why it might even be good for some to tend to and take care of them before cremation.

There are many moments that moved me in her book. She is unflinching as she describes her day’s work at the Westwind Crematorium – the bodies of two men who have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, the body of another who has stood in front of a train. Then there are the elderly and sick. And then, of course, there are the babies. The death that moved me most was that of an elderly African American woman. She had been living in a care home and when Doughty prepared her body, she found an enormous bed sore on her back. It seemed like the perfect symbol of how our obsession with prolonging life seems so often at odds with our understanding of the quality of the life people are living.

“I don’t think we should be working so fervently to extend life when we are absolutely not taking care of the people who are actually alive,” Doughty says. “They deserve a quality of life and there should be resources to take care of them.”

Of course, while death is so unspeakable, so awful it makes sense that we will literally do anything to stay alive. But should we? “If people really knew what they were getting into with their third chemotherapy treatment, or getting a pacemaker when they’re 92, if they really knew what that was going to mean, they might say no and we should give them that information.”

I tell Doughty about being in Iceland some years ago at a public bath when I realised that I hadn’t seen as many elderly bodies in my life. Lumpy and bumpy, dotted with liverspots, arthritic joints being soothed in the hot water. Here, those bodies are hidden away. Doughty looks delighted. “They are avatars,” she says. “They say, ‘you will be this’. But it’s all in societal perception because as a society we could choose to lionise those bodies. We could say they are like a completed canvas and every droop and every spot is a symbol of beauty, accomplishment, struggle and life lived. We could look at them that way, or we could look at them as if they are broken down machines and all we know is that we don’t want to become like that. By choosing to look away from bodies like that, we’re causing a lot of suffering because we’re also choosing to look away from their care and when they need us.”

Doughty’s language is full of the notion of care. When she writes about caring for the dead, it’s absolutely clear just how much she cares for the living too. What would a healthy attitude towards death be, for her? “Not being afraid of it,” she says, “not running away from the fact that our fear of death is at the core of our existence.” She smiles. “You can’t live every day with the raw reality of death. My day isn’t filled with corpses and death and decay. It is filled with those questions though. But I don’t think you have to be like me. I don’t think you have to be completely obsessed with it.”

Kafka wrote: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Doughty writes in her book: “The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadline imposed by death.” She tells me that someone recently asked her what she was going to do when her campaigning is over and everyone just gets their heads around death and what it is to die. “But this is not going to be over,” she says. “I’m not looking for my next job. This is what I do and it’s what I’m going to be doing probably for the rest of my life. However long it is.”

• Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is out now published by Canongate, £12.99.

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