Please welcome guest blogger Bess Lovejoy!
Bess Lovejoy writes about death, obscure history, and other topics. She is the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, which Amazon named one of the best books of 2013. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, The Smithsonian, Lapham’s Quarterly, Slate, and elsewhere. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death, and a founding member of Death Salon. She lives in Brooklyn, where she can usually be found at a library or a cemetery.
You might know Caitlin Doughty from her laugh-out-loud funny YouTube series, Ask a Mortician, which blends essential death-related information with 80s-tastic special effects and the occasional home experiment (my favorite involving an attempt to bake faux-cremains into a chocolate cake). Her memoir, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, comes out this September, and combines an insider’s view of America’s culture of death denial with a personal account of working in the funeral industry. With her trademark humor and honesty, Caitlin reveals exactly what’s wrong with America’s attitude to death and provides a fascinating corrective.
As a friend of hers, and a member of her Order of the Good Death, I was looking forward to asking Caitlin some questions about the book. And I managed to get through the entire interview without asking her about eerily perfect bangs.
What made you want to write the book?
From my understanding, real, honest-to-God writers feel a compulsion to write. I never felt that compulsion until I started to work at the crematory almost seven years ago. All of a sudden I desperately wanted to share what I was seeing and experiencing, [and] openly discuss our toxic relationship with death. I still wouldn’t classify myself as a writer, but I couldn’t not write the book.
What was the hardest part about the process? Favorite part?
The hardest part was that writing is hard! Do I want to face this difficult part of my life and translate it into 5 readable paragraphs, or do I want to watch this baby goat video on Facebook? The answer, emphatically, is baby goat. But my favorite part was when I actually managed to face the difficult stuff and write. Writing always seems more fun when you’ve actually completed the task.
This is definitely a book with a message. But it’s also a memoir. Did you find those two aspects coming into conflict at all as your wrote, or did they work in synchronicity?
I learned very early on in my death advocacy that it was easier for people to handle the message if it was coming directly from a real person. Especially if the person was using humor and stories to lighten the mood. Death can be incredibly somber, and people tend to shut down if you don’t give them an easier in. The memoir aspect of the book is trying to be that in.
Bonus Question! What did you wish someone had told you about writing a book before you started?
If you aren’t 100% passionate about your subject and your story, you will never finish. I was 150% passionate and there were still many days I wanted to give up.
And in terms of the book’s message, two connected questions: What do you think are some of the biggest barrier to America becoming more death-positive?
Our dead bodies and death rituals are still largely controlled by the funeral industry. The industry has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Most people have no idea how much control they are actually allowed to have when a family member dies. We just assume that we have to do exactly what the funeral home tells us because that’s the way it has been for so long.
What are some of the biggest changes American society could make to help people be in touch with their own mortality?
Intellectual exercises can be very helpful. But the real change comes around actual death. Being with the dead body, seeing that it’s not dangerous, using it to mourn deeply and realize that you yourself will someday die. As long as we’re handing off death to a business, we’re never going to be able to regain the intimate relationship we once had.
On an individual level, what do you think are some concrete steps people can take to get in touch with their own mortality? And what are some ways to address the fear that brings up for many people?
Treat your relationship with mortality as just that, a relationship. A relationship that is always evolving and requires work to stay healthy. If you think about it, Death is the thing that is always with you. You can prepress the thoughts, but they are still there. you can watch films, read books, visit, deathstinations, talk to your friends and family about what you want done with your body when you die, write a will, visualize your funeral. If those activities bring up fears and emotions–good! Facing those difficult things makes us better, more self-aware people.
Relatedly, how do YOU cope with dealing with such a difficult subject all the time? I know it’s not always easy.
There are many death workers who medicate in not-so-healthy ways. Knowing that, I take self-care very seriously. I read everything I can get my hands on, I write, I exercise, I have an excellent therapist, excellent friends.
Questions from Twitter!
As early adopters of goth culture start feeling the years a little bit, have they impacted the way America does death?
I’m not sure this has had a country-wide effect, simply because the numbers aren’t there. At the moment it’s the baby boomers (a massive group) who are driving the change in our deathways. But the changes the under-50 set are making now, the ideas we’re developing, I believe will have a big impact on how we think about death in the future when we are making decisions for what we want done with our own bodies.
Are upcoming generations less likely to choose embalming? Or is it more regional than generational?
It’s already happening. Embalmer was recently listed as one of the fastest-disappearing middle-class careers. People are choosing cremation, where embalming is harder to sell, and more of us are realizing that the process is not required. It will take longer to disappear in certain regions, like the deep South, where cremation is “of the Devil”.
And finally, if you weren’t a mortician, what would you be?
I’ve been doing death work for so long, and been totally wrapped up in it for so long, that I couldn’t imagine a world where I’m not. All alternative answers are bonkers, like astronaut or ballerina or pterodactyl.
Pre-order Smoke Gets in Your Eyes on Amazon or from any of these retailers!