Everyone’s favorite undertaker, Caitlin Doughty, has spent the last few years since her first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, was released traveling the world to experience global death traditions and rituals, opening her own green funeral home, leading The Order of the Good Death, and posting her YouTube series, Ask a Mortician. Caitlin’s new book, From Here to Eternity, comes out this fall, and she spoke with Haute Macabre about all of that and more (and maybe even a little necrophilia).
HM: First, tell us about the new book! Is it a “sequel” to Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, or is it less of a memoir and more of a deathstination travel guide?
CD: It’s neither! My first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a memoir, the first-person story of a young woman taking a job at a crematory. The new book, From Here to Eternity is more narrative nonfiction– I’m your guide to a selection of the strange but wonderful death customs around the world. I would love to do a deathstination travel guide (I thought the one Atlas Obscura put out this year was killer) but I wanted to take you to places and tell you stories that the average tourist wouldn’t have access to.
HM: Did you have a favorite place that you visited?
CD: That’s like choosing between my children! Well, I don’t have children but I imagine that would be what it’s like? The village I visited in rural Indonesia, to see the ritual where mummies are taken from the grave and cleaned and re-dressed, was the most surreal. It was incredibly hard to get to, you land at an airport that’s like 11 hours by car from the village. But their rituals are so profoundly different than the US, and that difference was what I was searching for.
HM: Was there anything truly shocking or surprising in your travels, or do you think you’re just a tiny bit desensitized to what most would consider Way Too Creepy and Weird?
CD: I think I am desensitized to corpse, mummies, skulls, etc. Well, desensitized is maybe the wrong word. They’re beautiful and fascinating, I haven’t lost my wonder. But it takes a lot for a dead body to shock me. To be honest you, what’s creepy is not someone keeping a skull in their home, or watching an open air pyre cremation. What’s creepy is what we do in our own country, keeping families away from their dead, pumping the dead full of chemicals, placing them in a concrete fortresses underground.
HM: Can you tell us a little about Undertaking LA and your mission to bring the dead back home?
CD: Undertaking LA is my green funeral home in LA. Our first priority is that families don’t feel any pressure, and can be as involved as they want to be in the process. Keep the body at home if you want to! Come be here for the cremation or natural burial if you want to! All options are on the table. We also have started workshops to teach people how to feel comfortable taking care of their dead at home. We’re a small, female owned and run business, but we have a LOT of ideas for the next few years.
Death became an industry– medicalized, corporate, and for profit.
HM: Overall, I’ve been getting the impression that the Death Positive Movement and the majority of the members of The Order of the Good Death are predominantly female. Do you feel this is because of the funeral industry being almost completely male-dominated throughout history, and now women have the Order to find their welcomed place both in the funeral industry and its related academia?
CD: That’s a great way to start the discussion. The reasoning I can’t stand is that the movement is so female-dominated because females are the “more naturally caring sex” and are “helpers at the time of death.” Barf. Women used to dominate birth and death care. Then death became an industry– medicalized, corporate, and for profit. I think that’s why this movement resonates with women, people of color, LGBTQ, any marginalized group that wants deathcare for their community in their own hands, not the hands of a for profit industry that might not have their best interest at heart.
HM: Do people expect you to be a bit, well, creepy in person? Is there a common Caitlin misconception that people have of you?
Honestly the reaction I get most is, “why are you so tall?!” I’m 6’1”, but most people assume I’m a spunky lil’ thing.
Most people don’t get to say, “I’m real proud of my necrophilia work.”
HM: You’ve been doing the Ask a Mortician web series since 2011, do you have a favorite episode?
CD: I’m going to say the Necrophilia episode, because that topic is hard to handle logically and rationally. I think I did a good job sharing little known facts and making in interesting without sensationalizing the subject. Most people don’t get to say, “I’m real proud of my necrophilia work.”
HM: What’s at the top of your recommended reading list: death related and … not-death related (alive related?)
CD: If you’re into death around the world, I hope you already own Paul Koudounaris’s three books. They’re gorgeous for a coffee table and show your death cred in a major way. Two death related books I loved this month are To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Two non-death related books I loved were Future Sex by Emily Witt and How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell. Now that I finished my own book I have time to read again! I’m taking reccs as well. Tweet me!
Do you have a topic that you’d like to see Caitlin discuss on Ask a Mortician? Post in the comments below!