[ed. note] I remember becoming aware a few years ago of the rising internet fame of a young mortician in California — a woman in her 20s whom the Utne Reader called “the world’s most famous practicing undertaker.” My first thought was: What can a mortician put on social media that would garner a massive following? Is it simply the shock value of speaking about death and corpses in a public forum? A little time with her online persona made clear that no, it’s not just about prodding the edges of our comfort zones. Caitlin Doughty wants to change the way we all think about death.
Doughty’s “Ask A Mortician” YouTube series (which has been hosted at Jezebel for several years) invites all manner of questions about how the dead are handled, lowering the opacity on this most universal — and universally hidden — event. While surely people’s morbid fascinations are piqued by Doughty’s open conversation about the end of life, what keeps them following is the undeniable intellect, wit, and genuine commitment to her vocation that comes through in her remarks.
Those qualities are even more obvious in her newly published memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. Seemingly against all odds, Doughty manages to bring levity and humor to descriptions of loading bodies into the furnace and riding home covered with human ash. And that’s kind of the point: She’s not afraid to bring lightness to this ever-dark subject, and she doesn’t want us to be afraid either.
In her most literal expression of this aspiration, she brings up the design of the mortuary and crematory itself — the lack of daylight, the absence of a comfortable space for living relatives to bear witness, the total isolation of the mortician. And by this I was inspired. I wanted to ask Doughty, what would a crematory design look like if we all feared death a little less, if we took down the physical and psychological fortress that separates the living from the recently deceased?
So I did ask. Below, Doughty has described her vision of a new kind of facility for caring for the dead, which reflects an uncommon attitude towards mortality. Artist Josephin Ritschel has created illustrations based on her ideas. This place doesn’t exist now, but Doughty is working on a new venture, Undertaking LA, which aims to realize some of these principles for communities in Southern California, and eventually further afield.
A man has died.
His wife calls the local funeral home to retrieve his body. Before he died, he made it clear he wanted to be cremated — “nothing fancy!” Fortunate request, as there is nothing fancy about the industrial warehouses that house most of our modern cremation machines.
It is now two days later. Even though the man had stage 4 cancer, no one expected him to go so soon. His three children, who live in other states, have only just flown in. The family feels incomplete as they sit around the kitchen table, picking at a neighbor’s well-intentioned mourning meatloaf. Their father is gone and there was no goodbye.
Do they want to have a funeral? Not really. Maybe just a chance to see his body. They call the funeral home, and the funeral director says, “Well, your loved one would need to be embalmed for a viewing.” (Not true, but we’ll give the funeral director the benefit of the doubt that his response was born of ignorance rather than deception.) The family can picture themselves sitting awkwardly alongside their father’s chemically preserved body. To see him dressed in a suit and made up seems wrong, so unlike the man he was. Do they want to be there to witness the cremation instead? Driving to the aforementioned industrial warehouse at the edge of town doesn’t appeal, either. So the family does nothing. They sit there with their meatloaf, uneaten and growing cold, as the incomplete feeling gnaws at the lining of their hearts.
I’m ashamed to admit that as a mortician, I’ve participated in the act of creating that incomplete feeling. I’ve cremated hundreds of bodies alone, only the dead to keep me company, the deceased’s family nowhere to be found. I’ve mailed ashes through the US Postal Service at the family’s request, so they don’t have to come anywhere near the funeral home. Not that I blame them for staying away. If you’d seen the cremation facilities I’ve worked in, you might not want to show up, either.
What if there were a better way? What if we focused on improved spaces for more meaningful funerals? What if we made it safe for families to show up, be involved, and begin the hard work of grief? This is one such proposal.
When you offer a 21st century family the opportunity to wash the body of their deceased loved one, do not be surprised if their first response is not an enthusiastic “Sign me up!” We’ve come so far from our former comfort with the dead body that we even believe our corpses become dangerous post mortem. They don’t. Death is not floating off them, hell bent on infecting the living.
To regain comfort with the physical ritual of washing the dead, there needs to be user-friendly, comfortable space, more like a Turkish bath house than the sterile medical environment of a modern morgue. When the family arrives, those who wish to participate in washing the body are led into a high-ceiling, dome-roofed room. The light is soft and low. In the center of the room sits a marble table where the body has been placed in advance, covered under a blanket, except for the face and arms.
Around the rim of the table is a small moat, containing warm lavender water. The family surrounds the body on all sides and the director can guide them in washing the body. The process can range from highly guided for those who fall into the “you want me to do what exactly with a corpse?” camp, to no guidance for those with strong religious ritual tradition, like the Jewish Chevra Kadisha or the Muslim Ghusl.
The water is drained from the bottom of the table, and fresh towels are brought to dry the body. The hair can be fixed, and the body dressed and prepared to the family’s wishes. From a grandma who never stopped wearing a sky-high bouffant, to the father who just needs a shave, the family can stay until the dead person’s personal style is reflected. Does such styling really matter if they’re heading straight off to be cremated? Yes, for some people it absolutely does.
Even though our national cremation rate is nearing 50 percent, we still think of crematories as places of occult strangeness. Which is not entirely untrue. Most modern crematories are efficient body disposal factories with cement floors and unkind angles. Often, no one who doesn’t work there is allowed in.
In our new design, the body is loaded onto a rolling bier in the washing room and escorted into a crematory. The crematory itself has a large glass roof, in a building surrounded by trees. This allows the crematory to fill with natural light, giving the feeling of being outside, hearkening back to the open air pyres of our ancestors. In the many crematories I’ve worked in or visited, the difference in feeling between those with skylights and those lit by oppressive fluorescents is massive.
Plants grow in the crematory, hydrated with water diverted from the washing room. This means every person who passes through the crematory contributes (even if just metaphorically) to the cycle of life and death in the space.
Speakers play music that meant something to the person who died, from Bach to Salt-n-Pepa to Wagner to Radiohead. No judgment. The body is loaded into the cremation machine. The director invites a member of the family to push the button, starting the process of the cremation.
Cremations take, on average, 1–2 hours, with additional time for the ashes to cool and be processed. The family can go home and return to pick up the ashes on another day. Or they can make their way to the adjacent greenhouse for the duration of the cremation, keeping them near the process. Depending on the family, it can be time for quiet reflection, a picnic with the deceased’s favorite foods, a full mariachi band performance, or a memorial service with other family members.
The family can leave that day with the urn, still warm to the touch. All this is possible in a four-hour ritual that leaves the family feeling like they are active participants, not wistful spectators, in the death care of someone they loved.
These ideas are not wild, not far out there, not pie in the sky. I’m not suggesting dipping corpses in gold, or sending them to underwater necropolis graveyards, or shooting them out of a cannon. These ideas are simply improvements on a paradigm and system that already exists. But the changes won’t happen unless the public demands them, and forward thinking people in the death industry hear those demands.
Consider that our fear of death may arise from unfamiliarity. If the death industry would extend a friendly hand, and welcome us into friendly spaces, death itself has the potential to become a friend.
All illustrations by Josephin Ritschel.