“Ask a Mortician” is a Good Resource Right Now If You’re Scared or Unsure

Being death-positive can help prepare for the possible worst

From hockey rinks to the Heimlich maneuver

I’m the kind of person who likes to plan and prepare. It’s not as important to me that things go exactly according to plan but rather that there is a contingency if things go awry (and they do). This is likely due to spending ten years in a career that hyper-fixated on plans, manuals, scripting, and above all: the fear of litigation.

I’ve been a ride supervisor at amusement parks, a lifeguard instructor in the Wisconsin Dells, and a comedy club manager, plus a whole lot of interesting stuff in-between that may or may not have involved Zambonis.

I and my ill-fitting pants would like to inform you that I also supervised world-famous roller coasters, too, okay?!

All of those jobs required being two steps ahead and always knowing what to do if (when!) something goes wrong. I’ve dealt with choking, myriad medical emergencies, ride malfunctions, near-drownings, cardiac arrest, lost people, and even death more than once at these jobs. Because I was often in some type of leadership role, I would often be one of the first people to respond to these situations and sometimes the only one.

I’ve developed a way of coping with urgent matters and crises that requires me to be hands-on, at the ready, and knowing what to do next. Even now, when something happens, I call it going into Lifeguard Mode.

So when the next thing to do at this moment is nothing at all, I was frustrated and at a loss — it’s just not how I roll.

The death positive movement

Enter: Caitlin Doughty, bestselling author, mortician, and funeral director, better known on YouTube as Ask a Mortician. I’ve always been fascinated with death and the funeral industry in a way I couldn’t describe but Doughty’s content perfectly satisfies: what she (unofficially?) spearheads as the death positive movement.

Death positivity is about reforming the American death care industry and informing people about death, care (often hands-on whenever appropriate), what it all involves, and ritualizing to process grief and loss. Basically: all the things people wish they knew before dealing with the immediate aftermath of losing a loved one and learning the hard way… and also some interesting bonus material (all the things you’re afraid to ask, she’s probably answered).

an oldie but goodie

I was hooked the moment I discovered it about two years ago. I’m a Patron, I’ve read her books, I watch every video that pops up and I have even started preparing for my own death in what ways I can, just in case something happens. I am, as she refers to her followers, a proud Deathling, through and through.

What’s always appealed to me about the “Ask a Mortician” content is that it’s neither sensationalized nor dehumanized but is always entertaining and informative. It spoke to me in the same way that I used to train my lifeguard candidates: factual and practical but not cold. Many of my trainees had never been exposed to death at all, much less what to do if someone is actively dying and teaching them how to prevent it. It’s a delicate line to walk: having to drive home the importance and reality of their job and skill but recognize that it’s a lot to take in mentally and emotionally.

Americans, in particular, are particularly sensitive to and ignorant of death in general and she’s a fantastic resource to reverse that and really help people prepare, manage, and cope, especially when there are so many unknowns.

Being a devoted Deathling pays off

Once the coronavirus crisis hit and the United States slammed its brakes, I wondered how Caitlin would address it, especially as death tolls rose and regional healthcare systems strained. Interestingly enough, she had just done an interview in October last year about the 1918 pandemic, released mere weeks before cases started popping up overseas.

I had my guesses about what information she’d offer to demystify the media’s fear-mongering and the realities of crisis management (including the mass grave story from New York). It was a relief when the videos popped up and my guesses were mostly right. That despite all the leadership dysfunction that brought us to this point, at least the systems and practices in place hadn’t failed and were working as intended… and also, that my instinct to always-be-ready was still working well and things would be okay if someone I loved succumbed to the virus.

In particular, her first Covid-19 video addressed the restlessness and helplessness I felt going into this lockdown that sent my anxiety through the roof; that it’s human nature to want to help and right now, the best way to do that is to stay out of sight and away from each other and have affairs in order.

There’s a chance it can help you, too. At this point, we can’t slow the pandemic down any more than by what we’re doing: treating the worst cases and preventing spread. But if you feel uncertain about what you can do if you or someone you love dies during this crisis, or are just feeling particularly morbid and curious about how the hell Lenin’s corpse is still doing its thing (nobody would blame you)… have I got a YouTube channel for you!

Knowledge truly is power and because we are all facing the reality we may be dealing hands-on with death much earlier than expected, this may be an entertaining, helpful, and humanizing way to learn and prepare.

I’m a writer, author, and essayist based in Los Angeles. I’d be delighted to connect with you through my mailing list, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook (in that order).

Writer, author, and essayist based in Los Angeles. www.reidunsaxerud.com

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