CAITLIN DOUGHTY GIVES GOOD DEATH
There are all sorts of ways to do death. Some cultures parade the skulls through the street every year. Some take out the bones and dance with them. And others leave them bodies for the vultures to eat. Or, if you’re American, you bury the whole thing—literally and figuratively—as most of us are taught that death isn’t something we talk about. Well, Caitlin Doughty is changing that. With her thoughtful and purposefully lo-fi Ask A Mortician web series, Order of the Good Death website, and her forthcoming book, this longtime lover of the macabre has made it her personal mission to change the way we deal with death by talking corpses, decomposition and natural burial, among other tasty topics.
Recently, Doughty talked to PSTOL about her inevitable career on the funeral industry, what it takes to be a crematory operator, corpse driver and funeral director and how girls can get into the business for themselves—oh, and maybe grab a book deal along the way.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALIZE YOU HAD A SPECIAL INTEREST IN THE OTHER SIDE, THE OCCULT AND DEATHLY THINGS IN GENERAL?
That was very early. I would say I was a morbid kid in general, but I became very focused on the macabre and the morbid when I was a freshman in high school. I grew up in Hawaii, which is what you think it is–it’s beautiful and people are outdoors paddling the open ocean and surfing and doing all of these things. Really you’re out here in the middle of the ocean and don’t have enough access to these other academic interests or other cultures or other ways of looking at the world. Fortunately for me, the Internet was just coming out at that time, so i was able to have an outlet for these interests I have. If I didn’t have the internet, I wouldn’t have been able to indulge my passions in a way. Because I did, I was able to be interested in decadent Victorian literature and things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
So high school is when I really developed [that interest], but I really didn’t know what that meant. It was just this really amorphous desire to consume information and material. It was a passion but I didn’t see it as something that would be my career. I didn’t think being fascinated by death was a career choice. And my parents certainly didn’t think so.
WHAT KINDS OF THINGS WERE YOU INTO DURING HIGH SCHOOL THAT HINTED AT YOUR FUTURE CAREER PATH?
It wasn’t like I was reading the suicide note of Sylvia Plath; in high school it was the idea of the delightfully macabre. It I think there is a lot of joy in death and a lot of joyful things that can be found. I found Nietzsche and Huysmans—a French decadence guy who I was really, really into. I read Edgar Allan Poe, which was a good gateway drug. I wasn’t out in the sun doing what others were doing. I was holed up in my room and in this dark world a little bit.
I wanted in high school to be a forensic pathologist but as I got a little bit older, I pushed it down a little bit, because I thought, this isn’t viable. I need to think about what I actually want to do as a career. I went in the direction of political science and thinking that I would major in that. I want to work as a clerk for the Supreme Court–it was a very staid, kind of this is my real life now and I need to make decisions about my future and real life.
And then I got to college and I went to the University of Chicago, which is a very academic institution, but it’s not a very practical academic institution, it’s sort of academia for academia’s sake in a lot of ways. It’s about asking big questions.
I think it was good for me because it wasn’t about were going to teach you how to be a lawyer or a nurse. It wasn’t a specialized thing like that at all; it was a much broader education which was very helpful because it combined my interest of the macabre with the desire to ask big questions.
I don’t remember the exact epiphany or moment, but it occurred to me that if I combined my lifelong love of the morbid with my academic interests with my interest in death and my interest in theater, I could really do something—like a larger project where I string all these things together.
I think it’s important to really hold out for thing that combines everything that makes you special. Don’t shut off a part of yourself or suppress a part of yourself because it doesn’t fit in with this career you’ve decided—make these parts of you work for whatever career. Integrate them. Don’t leave them out in the cold because they will wither and die.
SO THIS REALIZATION HELPED LEAD YOU TO A JOB IN THE DEATH INDUSTRY?
Yes, I went in with the idea that I wanted to do something bigger, that I wanted to do a larger project–and you just sort of know and it’s hard to describe this to people because it really is just an overwhelming feeling and as soon as it comes to you, it’s like, well that that’s what’s going on. And leading up to getting my first job in the industry was like that and especially when I started my first job at the crematorium it was like that.
I wanted to start at the ground level because I think it’s important to pay your dues, in whatever you’re doing. There are a lot of people in the funeral industry–people who want to reform it or who want to be at the top of the game, that sort of just waltz in and say, “Here I am. Here are my ideas.” But I found there’s a lot of resistance from people who have worked in the industry for years because it’s a difficult job and you have to start at the bottom. And I got a job at the very bottom, cremating bodies.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES A CREMATORY OPERATOR DO?
Depending on what funeral home you work for, you also might make arrangements as well as cremating bodies. So you might actually start by meeting the family and talking about what they want and then maybe doing the viewing, where the family sees the body before they’re cremated. So you might have a relationship with the person that you’re cremating, which I think enhances the experience to be able to know their story and know their family and things like that. All the better if the family actually comes and witnesses the cremation with you. Typically that doesn’t happen as often. The direct cremation is you and the body.
The body comes in and gets put in the body cooler to be kept fresh. You go in and check all the paperwork and numbers (everyone gets their own serial number). Then you remove the body on a gurney. Usually there is some sort of rolling, conveyor belt device that puts the body into the cremation machine (also called a retort). The door rises, you set all the dials on the front. There’s a big brick rectangular chamber that the body slides into. You close the door and you set the temperature based on the weight, size or age of the person and how many cremations you’ve done so far in the day (since the chamber may already be hot from an earlier cremation, and may not require such a high temperature).
It can take anywhere from an hour and twenty minutes to three hours at the very longest to cremate a body. Most people are cremated without a casket, but sometimes, a casket is involved. If casket goes in along with the body, that can take longer. It’s illegal to reuse caskets, so they have to be put into the chamber with the body, if there was a service before the cremation, for example. So that goes in. You move the body around several times. You want to move it around to facilitate it going as smoothly as possible and then, at the end of the process, there’s just going to be the bones left.
You remove big chunks of bones from the cremation chamber and take it over to something called a cremulator, which is sort of a high-powered, industrial blender. It whirrs the bones into this soft, powdery white ash that we know as cremated remains. We aren’t legally allowed to return the bones to the people, which is a shame. I think it should be an option. Sometimes the family wants us to scatter them at sea, sometimes the family wants the ashes returned in an urn–it depends on the person.
SAY YOU WANT TO BECOME CREMATORY OPERATOR. WHAT QUALIFICATIONS ARE NEEDED?
I’ll be honest. If you want to be a crematory operator, it’s not the easiest job to get. Especially if you’re a young woman, it’s a real fight to be taken seriously. The person I worked for, fortunately, was very open minded and saw something in me.
There is a lot of physical work involved, but really the most important thing is being very very mentally on point because this is somebody’s dead loved one were talking about. You have to make sure all the records are correct, everything is always above board, all the paperwork matches up and all the things are done in the right order at the right time in the right day. So it takes a lot of organizational mind power to keep it together. This is kind of high stakes in a way. This is someone’s dead body–which is very important to the family–and it’s very important that the ashes get back to the right people at the right time.
There is physical work to it. It’s hot. It’s dirty. It’s gross. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. It’s real. Crematories in America are usually in a semi-industrial environment, so it’s tough work and it’s difficult sometimes for old school funeral directors to wrap their mind around a happy young woman wanting to do it.
WHAT OTHER TRAINING OR JOBS HAVE YOU DONE IN THE FIELD?
I went to mortuary school even though I knew I didn’t want to be an embalmer. I felt like if I wanted to change the industry I had to really know how the industry actually works and make changes from the inside out.
WHAT WAS MORTUARY SCHOOL LIKE?
A mortuary science program is really more like a trade school, even though the academics can be pretty brutal. If you don’t have a strong foundation in science, math, and writing you won’t make it through. Something like 75% of the people we started our program with dropped out. It usually takes about 2 years to complete if you’re going pretty much full time. Not every state has a mortuary school, so you may have to relocate.
WHAT DID YOU DO AFTER MORTUARY SCHOOL?
After mortuary school, I worked as a body transport driver.
AND WHAT DOES TRANSPORTING BODIES ENTAIL?
The coroner generally transports the bodies. In a small town, you can expect that you will have a lot of duties. If you are the funeral director in a small town, you pick up bodies from crime scenes –you do it all. Whereas in Los Angeles, it’s very specialized because there are so many people needed to take care of the bodies. There are specialized coroners, coroner detectives, people who work with the health department or specialize in body removal.
A lot of people who do body transport pick up bodies from hospitals and homes but what I had what I called a “body van”–it was a Mercedes van that could hold several bodies at once. It was tall and you could get 12 bodies stacked very nicely and neatly in there. I worked at this crematory that had these three big cremation machines and I would drive really far distances–like hundreds of miles a day–to pick up from these facilities and bring bodies back. So that’s what i was doing–hitting the highways with 12 corpses loaded up in the back.
THEN YOU BECAME A FUNERAL DIRECTOR. WHAT’S THAT JOB LIKE?
The funeral director is someone who works with more of the bureaucracy part of things. And in a place like Los Angeles, the bureaucracy is pretty intense.
The main part of your job is working with the families–talking with them and figuring out what they want and then arranging everything with them to their satisfaction. But the reality is that a lot of the job is working with doctors, working with the coroner’s office, working with death certificates, and filing paperwork. It’s not just like the health department says, “Just give us the heads up and let us know that someone has died.” It’s an elaborate process of filing a death certificate and filing a permit of what the family wants done with their body and all of these things are incredibly bureaucratic (especially in a place like Los Angeles) so someone [looking to become a funeral director] should be very prepared for that.
Sometimes things are pretty straightforward. Like if somebody dies under a hospice care and they’ve been dying of pancreatic cancer for three months and they have a hospice worker says, “yep, pancreatic death, cause of death is cancer, three months, here’s my signature” and the family can do the paperwork right away and it’s very easy.
But a lot of times if it’s a sudden death or the family is not prepared for death or the doctor is hard to get a hold of, the process becomes more elaborate. Doctors are overworked and pinning them down to get them fill out something in the right way and sign something is like pushing the rock up the hill. Or they’ll do one thing wrong and the state won’t accept it and the rock will come tumbling back down the hill. And the state keeps getting worse and worse for what they will accept. This is not the most glamorous part of the job. But if you’re the type of person who is very detailed, or are interested in a very precision-based job, then this could be a good fit.
HOW HAVE MENTORS HELPED YOU IN YOUR CAREER?
My mentors showed me how to take my job incredibly seriously. There’s this impression of the funeral industry that were sort of in the dark, dank halls and burning these piles of bodies together and doing these kind of shady things, but I was taught the importance of keeping everything above board. I’m very fortunate that I’ve had several people who were very open to me being underneath them and teaching me about the industry.
IF A GIRL IS INTERESTED IN BREAKING INTO THE FUNERAL BIZ, WHAT KIND OF JOBS CAN SHE EXPECT TO DO AT FIRST?
If you think you might be interested in a career in funeral services, there are a couple of entry points. The first would be getting a job front of house like a receptionist or someone who is working services. You’re setting up flowers and guest books and things like that.
The second entry point would be to apprentice an embalmer, by working to train under a licensed embalmer in order to become an embalmer.
The third option would be a removal driver, which is picking up the bodies, or a crematory operator, which is working at a crematory, doing cremation. Cremation is not considered a specialized skill. You have to be trained and you have to have a license (at least in CA) that’s issued by the crematory under the crematory manager and that’s how I did it. Don’t look for the big money going into cremation, especially for an entry level job.
ANY OTHER TIPS FOR GIRLS WHO WANT TO GET THEIR FEET WET IN THE INDUSTRY AND FIND OUT, FIRST HAND, WHETHER THEY’D LIKE TO MAKE A CAREER IN THE INDUSTRY?
I think that this is not an especially easy job, especially now because things are becoming so streamlined in how we handle death. There’s not a big push for really expert practitioners working one-on-one with the family to create an experience much anymore (which I think is something that should come back). So I wouldn’t say it’s an especially easy job to get. Especially if it’s an old family funeral home, where it’s sons of sons of sons who work there or it’s a big corporate funeral home, it’s not going to be easy if, you’re a young woman, to just walk in and be like, ‘hey–I need a summer job.’
So one way to figure out whether you really want to [be in the funeral industry] is to see how much you’re willing to put yourself out there and see how much you’re willing to actually show up. The funeral industry isn’t the most technologically advanced–lots of companies in the industry don’t do the Internet. So you really have to ring the bell and walk in and say, “Hi, I’m Becky, I’m really fascinated by the funeral industry. I want to know how i can get a job here at the ground level. I want to know how I can work my way up.”
Even if it’s just taking flowers to a graveside or sweeping the crematory floor or washing the cars and dress bodies, at that point, you’re in. So you have to be willing–especially in the funeral industry– to actually show up, in person, and say hello and show them that you’re a competent young person.
SO NOW, AFTER WORKING LOTS OF DIFFERENT JOBS IN THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY, YOU’RE FULFILLING YOUR VISION OF A BIGGER PROJECT THAT COMBINES THEATER ACADEMIA, THE DEATH INDUSTRY AND EDUCATION BY MAKING THESE REALLY COOL VIDEOS CALLED ASK A MORTICIAN THAT LIFTS THE VEIL ON DEATH.
I had the Order of the Good Death site going and I was very happy with it. I think for a while I was resistant to putting myself out there as the face of it. Because the Internet is a judgmental place. I’m actually a pretty private person and the idea of me saying, with like, jazz hands, “hi! I’m Caitlin, everybody,” was kind of scary for me. I wanted to hide behind this Order of the Good Death thing.
But the more I thought about how the Internet works, I realized that people like messages delivered by people. They like to be able to say, “I feel like I trust her, I feel like I relate to her, I feel like this somebody I’m comfortable collecting information from” and they want that relationship. So I came to the point where i was like, OK. If I really want to move forward with this, then I have to be willing to put myself out there and stand behind my messages.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY SETBACKS OR THOUGHTS OF FAILURE ALONG THE WAY AND HOW HAVE YOU DEALT WITH THEM?
I sort of created the job i have now–which is this weird roving public death intellectual–since my passion isn’t a thing that exists yet. When you’re doing that, you can feel overwhelmingly passionate about what you’re doing, but that doesn’t mean society is going to be like, “oh yeah, that’s totally a thing now. welcome.’ ‘tell us more, death education lady.”
When I first put out the Order of the Good Death website, I was doing it for about a year before I started doing the Ask A Mortician videos. I was doing my job full time and I was doing my website and it wasn’t a booming website or super successful, but i believe in the if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality and it was just silent for a little while. And that was almost worse than failure in some ways because there’s crashing and burning and the pain that comes from that, and there’s the sort of like speaking into an empty room, which is how a lot of people start businesses and projects. If you give up the second you start speaking into an empty room, because you can’t stand speaking into an empty room, then you failed already. So I think if you believe in something passionately enough and you keep throwing stuff out there, something is going to stick.
YOU’RE NOW WORKING ON YOUR FIRST BOOK. HOW DID THE BOOK DEAL COME ABOUT?
I’ve wanted to write a book for five years now. I started working at the crematory and it was crazy for me. I had never really seen dead bodies in that way and it was this whole new experience and I was like people need to know about this.
I knew I wanted to write a book but I thought it would happen when I was in my 30s, and when I was more established. I never expected it to happen so soon. After the Ask A Mortician series came out, a couple of different literary agents contacted me, wanting to represent me for a book deal.
A lot of them were suggesting I do a wacky mortician book and that’s not really what I wanted to do. There was an agency–and I was worried they were too high-brow for me since they do a lot of Washington Post reporters and a lot of serious books about Afghanistan and things like that–but fortunately, this agency took the overall message very seriously and treated me very seriously, which is great. We did a big 60-page proposal outlining the book and including a few sample chapters of the book.
The agent decides which editors at different publishing houses they think the book would be a good fit for and they send the proposal to those people. And if those people like it and think there’s potential there, then you have a meeting with them.
So I actually flew to New York for two days. It was two of the most out-of-body-experience days of my life. I was running around New York, having meetings at these publishing houses that I had heard from when I was a 16-year-old reading in my room. It was really exciting.
They have what’s called an auction for the book, if more than one publishing house wants it. More than eight publishing houses wanted my book, which was incredibly exciting. Somebody won the auction and it was wonderful because it was one of my top choices and just a perfect fit. I doubt that I will ever have an experience that wide-eyed-girl-in-the-city again. So I ended up at W.W. Norton & Company. They publish several of my heroes like Neil deGrasse Tyson and E.O. Wilson, who was a Harvard biologist. And they take what I’m doing and the message very seriously.
Especially as a young woman who is incredibly passionate about this. You can have all the passion in the world but sometimes it’s hard to get people to take you seriously and you struggle to find that. I’ve made my choices much more on people who take me seriously rather than people who are just like, “we think you’re super fun. We want to put you in this funny book and I’m like yes, but …
I would say to always err on the side of the people who are more serious. There is just so much fluff out there. There is so much fluff on the internet, on TV, everywhere–it’s crappy content. There are so few people out there who really have such strong, intelligent voices. If somebody is going to give you that platform, take that platform.