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Hi. I am Caitlin Doughty, licensed mortician, Ask a Mortician, and author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes! AMA!

Oct 23rd 2014 by CaitlinDoughty • 40 Questions • 2449 Points

Hello mortals, doomed to someday die! I'm Caitlin Doughty, licensed mortician in California and author of the new book about life at a funeral home, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: & Other Lessons from the Crematory.

You might know me from my webseries Ask a Mortician (the Necrophilia episode was a hit round these parts, I hear). I also run a group called The Order of the Good Death and and co-founded Death Salon.

HEY IT'S ME---> https://twitter.com/TheGoodDeath/status/525373404455907328

Ask me Anything about death, dying, my haircare routine, etc. There are no morbid questions, only delightfully morbid people!

Q:

You've probably been asked tons of questions about death, weird family stories and other things. So what is one thing you want to share that no one has thought to ask you about but you think people would be interested in hearing?

A:

Do you sometimes have to remove glass eyeballs from the deceased and mail them to spouses in different states? Why yes, yes you do.

(Ok, this only happened once).


Q:

I imagine a polygamist with 2 glass eyes. Each wife gets 1 eye. Thanks for sharing!

A:

Meh heh heh heh.


Q:

Hello, Caitlin. You probably don't remember me, but I messaged you on Facebook back in March, about an hour after unexpectedly losing my wife to a heart attack at 55. I was sitting there dazed, a 1000 things running through my head, when I remembered how we enjoyed watching your videos together. I felt lost, angry, scared, and a dozen other emotions. For some reason, I reached out to you, even though you didn’t know us. I'm curious.
Has that sort of thing been happening to you more as you've become more well known?
You responded very kindly, advising me to allow myself to feel any and every emotion that came my way. It’s been.... rough, very rough, but I’m still here and working through it. I’ve become sort of a grief-hermit, rarely leaving my house because I’m having a hard time speaking with people, but I’m working on that. I’m even crying as I type this. I just wanted to thank you again for your words of kindness to a stranger at the most vulnerable and painful moment of his life. It helped. Bless you, and the book is wonderful. My wife would have loved it.

A:

You be the grief hermit you need to be. The idea that we should be out and about 2 weeks after the death of a spouse, child, or parent is ludicrous. It's dangerous to pathologize grief like that. You do your process.

Also, this is such a kind thing to say, thank you. The fact that the videos made you feel just a little better in the vile, boggy, grotesque, worse day of your life is why I continue to do this.

Becoming more well known means I'm not able to respond to every message anymore, which breaks my heart. I'm learning to let that go, the feeling that I'm letting people down.


Q:

Caitlin, Thanks for doing the AMA! I recently read your book and found myself unable to put it down. It was a book I didn't realize I needed to read so much, my comfort level with thinking and talking about death especially my own death is at an all time high. So I have a few questions for you. 1. Did you ever have a clear moment of realization that you wanted to get into the death industry? 2. Are there any other resources you would recommend for those who are morbidly curious? 3.Is there a database that you're aware of that's catalogued natural burial grounds and eco friendly or alternative funeral homes (I was completely unaware there were either just a couple months ago)? (Sorry for formatting I'm on mobile)

A:

There is an amazing database for natural burial grounds/providers called the Green Burial Council. (Disclaimer: This is for the US and they have some pretty high standards to be included). http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/

Almost the first day I started working in the industry it was like everything fell into place. Boom. Here we are. Doing what we're supposed to be doing. Before that I thought death was something I wanted to try, but didn't realize it would become my life.

My fave morbid spots on the internet are Morbid Anatomy, The Chirurgeon's Apprentice, and Atlas Obscura.


Q:

What's the scariest thing to happen to you at a funeral home?

A:

I had to pick up a body from a prison morgue. That was a little intense. The dead don't scare me, but the living sure do.


Q:

Hi Caitlin! I'm a giant fan, love your Youtube series and just bought your book. You've inspired me to teach everyone I know about death positivity!

My question is: I understand you would like to see overall cultural change in they way our society thinks about death, but in terms of changing specific laws, (such as ones that infringe upon natural burials [something you talked about on Ask a Mortician]) where do you think our attention should lie? In other words, what laws are most hurting the death positivity philosophy and what would you like to see replace them?

Thank you so much for your time during this AMA!

A:

That's a great question.

Probably a) the laws in 8 states that still require a family to hire a funeral home during some stage of the funeral/body care.

b) The fact that alkaline hydrolysis, which is more environmentally friendly than cremation (but uses water instead of flame) is only really available to the public in 8 states.


Q:

Weird... I'm assuming these aren't the same 8 states.

A:

I have a death meetin' guys, but I'm going to come back later and answer more questions, so keep leaving them.

Also, why couldn't I be here on DANIEL RADCLIFFE DAY?


Q:

What are some way to ensure that your family is on board with your death wishes?

I've recently made a decision to donate my body to a body farm, and my brother isn't comfortable with my choice.

A:

Just keep chipping away at him. "Hey bro, I got you this really interesting book on the body farm." "Sup, check out this article about how this criminal was caught because of the research done there."

Fortunately, unless your brother is your only living relative, he's not in charge of what happens to your body. Just keep telling him that it makes you feel good to know you will be useful after death. Maybe he'll come around.


Q:

Would you ever do what the Wari' did in their funeral customs for your family, as in eat the body of the deceased?

A:

I think the Wari's mortuary cannibalism is so beautiful, but keep in mind that they had rituals and custom and meaning behind it. If I helped a family do that in California, they would probably just be doing it for the titillation factor, not because they truly believe it's the right thing for the community.

Also, you know, pretty bad PR for a new funeral home, right?


Q:

Is it true that cremains from the Alkaline Hydrolysis (hydro cremation) have more volume that the ones from the traditional (fire) cremation? If yes, how much more volume? What's the difference in look and feel of two types of cremains? Thanks!

A:

It is true, I believe it's about 20% more volume. Alkaline Hydrolysis remains tend to have a cleaner, whiter appearance, where cremated remains are grayer, grittier in texture.


Q:

Fellow mortician here :)

What's your most "thank god nobody saw that" moment from work?

A:

Good one!

Probably on the job crying. Families/my colleagues don't need to see me fall apart. What's yours?


Q:

Hi Caitlin! I'm a huge fan of your book, and your online series! I love your honesty and humour (I am a big fan of anything to do with death rituals and medical history)!

My question is about accessibility and your job; would a wheelchair user with full upper body mobility be able to be a mortician? Are you aware of anyone working in your field who uses mobility devices/who is physically disabled?

Thanks so much for participating in an AMA; you're fantastic and a huge inspiration to me!

A:

First, thank you!

This is an excellent question, and one that I don't totally know the answer to. I can tell you that I was surprised at what a physical job it was. Lots of heavy lifting (bodies, caskets, etc). If you're doing removals there's usually stairs involved as well. Most funeral homes require you to be a jack of all trades.

Certainly you could be a family counselor, but as far as prepping the bodies I've never seen an accessible prep room. However, just because I haven't seen it absolutely doesn't mean it's not out there, and I hope it is.


Q:

Do you have any thoughts on cemeteries that are not kept up, abandoned or built over? I went to the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, and their Jewish section is almost completely grown over. There is also a cemetery in Newfoundland, where I am from, that is now a parking lot.

A:

Cemeteries that aren't kept up I find really beautiful- visual reminders that we all disappear someday. But I don't agree with putting parking lots over them. Cities that don't value cemeteries just need to redefine their values. Consider turning the cemetery into a cemetery/public green space. We don't need another McDonalds.


Q:

Did you watch Six Feet Under and see the bits about natural burial within? (And love it?)

A:

Totally watched Six Feet Under. People expect me to be an elitist about it, but I think it was really well done. A colleague of mine was one of the mortician consultants on the show, so they took getting the death stuff right pretty seriously.

And yes, (SHOW SPOILER BTW) anything that ends with natural burial (including my own life) is A-OK by me.


Q:

Have you ever had someone wake up on you?

A:

Nope. When you work with the dead for awhile you see that time after time, the DEAD ARE SO DEAD. They are beautiful shells of former people, but they're checked out.

Things that happen, weird noises, movements, etc, can be explained by biology.


Q:

Hi Caitlin! May I call you that? (I recently listened to your book while on vacation in Mexico with my husband and while telling him wildly interesting facts by starting "Caitlin says..." he disagreed I should call you Caitlin ;) Anyhow, I am an RN who is very interested in making end-of-life discussions routine, to be included in these discussions would be what constitutes quality of life to the individual, what medical procedures/risks they are willing to undergo, what they want to have in order before illness/death, and post death arrangements with discussions about alternative burials/cremations/in home care for the deceased. It's so important for our loved one's to know our limits and wishes! Do you know of someone/a group of someones that might already have a foundation for this type of service? What do you think will increase our comfort/change the culture around the hidden nature of death and dying?

A:

Of course you can call me Caitlin. Can I call you MucousPlug?

The work you do, and what you're advocating for is so important. SO important. Dying and death has to be a process, starting with exactly what you're talking about and what you do and ending with what I do (rituals, meaningful body disposition, grief, etc).

Someone I work with is Chanel at the site Get Your Shit Together. It's all the end of life documents, presented in an easy to access and understand way. Straight talk is best, I think, that's what will move us forward in our comfort level with death and dying.


Q:

Can you tell us some of the stories you mentioned were omitted from the book?

Your videos truly helped me so much after I lost my mother over the summer. I don't just wanted to thank you for your amazing work and the impact you had on my experience.

A:

I'm so sorry about your mother, and thank you for saying that.

There was a whole long story about a fireman who came into the funeral home with a dead parakeet and asked us the cremate it. I was like "sorry sir, we aren't a pet crematorium, just humans." And he said "awww c'mon, isn't there someone's pocket you could just slip this little guy into?"


Q:

Hey, I only recently stumbled across your page and I'm actually really stoked you did this AMA because I've been dying to know... How do you maintain your flawless fringe? Do you blow dry it, or straighten it? Because my newly horizontal fringe refuses to be as perfect as yours and it's causing very real and serious angst in my life. Much love!

A:

Thank GAWD someone asked about my hair ;)

I have really, insanely thick hair which helps. I know that sounds like a humble brag, but on balance, I shed the equivalent of a small rodent every day. I keep the fringe just over my eyebrows, so when I use the bigger hot roller stick...thing? in the morning, it pulls the curl up to just above my eyebrows.


Q:

My son's [4] is very excited about graveyards, begs us to go to them fairly regularly and plans on becoming a gravedigger when he grows up. I'd love to connect him to someone in the graveyard industry. Are there cemetery meet and greets or something where I could take my son to talk to the caretakers of graveyards? We live in Oregon if there is some sort of regional event. Thanks,

A:

Yeah yeah baby deathling!

Cemeteries are getting SO much better about allowing the public in for events, movie screenings, concerts, etc. If it's an active cemetery, they usually will have the guys out there with backhoes digging graves somewhat regularly. Unless they have HEARTS OF STONE, I'm sure they'd love to talk to him about what they do.


Q:

Hello Caitlin! Fellow death-lover and body-stuffer here. Thank you for doing this AMA!

My least favorite part of my job is dealing with angry death-deniers. How do you deal with death-deniers that question your work? Do you have a phrase or sentence that you say that puts them at ease and makes you feel successful in the interaction?

A:

People don't realize that a big part of the job is eating crow for things that aren't are fault. Sure, there are logistical things I slip up on, and am happy to admit when I'm at fault. But you never know when a family is going to freak out because of a small thing, like a death certificate being delivered a day late or a flower out of place.

I try to remember that that anger is coming from a place of extreme hurt or guilt about the death. It's not about me. It's about their own relationship to death or the person who has died. It took me a long time to learn that.


Q:

Have you ever had to do an exhumation?, Also have you read up on the "Incorruptables"? The catholic bodies of corpses that show no form of decompasition. What are your thoughts on them?

A:

I've never done an exhumation myself (although, call me, I'll be there).

I have seen an exhumed body at the funeral home and it looked pretty, how you say, mummy-ish? Pretty dessicated and dehydrated, brown, etc.

Here's a fantastic article Elizbath Harper, relic hunter, wrote about incorrupt corpses: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/really-whats-incorrupt-corpses


Q:

Hi Caitlin, I am 18 years old and have always been fascinated by the death industry so my question is, what advice do you have for a young, aspiring, deathling? I am hoping to one day bring the death revolution to the midwest.

A:

My advice would be to be creative, and self-motivated. It sounds like you already are those things. The thing is, the death industry is changing, and just being an old school embalmer isn't going to cut it anymore.

Here's a whole long thing I wrote about it, I hope it's helpful!: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cant-encourage-become-mortician


Q:

Will the death community be getting a subreddit? Is there one already? I think this is a great platform to develop new deathlings and share news and pictures etc.

A:

/r/Deathlings?

/r/DeathRevolution?

Someone get on it!


Q:

Looks like someone's on it, let's get some links going. /r/Deathlings/

A:

Yeeesssss twiddles fingers


Q:

What path did you take to become a mortician? I've always been curious. Are there different ways like an apprenticeship, study, etc?

Thanks for doing this AMA

A:

I started in a crematory, and then went back to school for a mortuary science degree. In California I didn't have to go back for the degree, but I knew it would give me more authority as a death reform advocate.

The problem is that every state is different, and has different procedures. There's no "one simple trick" to work with the dead (or reduce belly fat).


Q:

Have you got any keepsake of The Meow? What did you do with it- are you more a portemonnaie person, an altar person or the kind of person who prefers to wear bone fragments on a necklace underneath her clothes?

A:

I didn't keep anything tangible, except for some of her hair. I had thought for years about taxidermy for her, but when it came down to it, I wanted to practice what I preach, and give her a natural burial.

Sometimes I wish I has kept her fangs.


Q:

What is your favorite brand of cereal?

A:

I could lie to you and say it's like Kashi Flax Blend or something but it's totally Lucky Charms.


Q:

Not life?

A:

Zing!


Q:

Hi! I’m a fan…of silliness, of morbid stuff, of honesty…of you!

First a thank you: Thanks to your site, I stumbled upon Sacred Crossings and attended a class last night on Green Funerals and Death Midwifery.

Second a question: when will Promession be available in Los Angeles?! Can you help make it so…

A:

There was a failed Promession bill in LA just this year I think. Well, not failed, I think the petitioners pulled it. I would LOVE to help advocate for it, I just don't have the legal prowess to spearhead the process.

That said, it's ridiculous that it's not available here.


Q:

Are there any old/obsolete burial customs/general death rituals you wish were still a thing?

A:

The Roman custom of putting sweet smelling herbs on the pyre and washing the bones in milk.

And just open air pyres in general (they are a thing, just not in the West).


Q:

Hi Caitlin! Why doesn't the U.S. have cremation chapels with the catafalque & committal lowering like the UK, Canada, and Australia crematories offer?

Also, do you miss huli huli roadside chicken stands from HI?

A:

HELL YES I miss Huli Huli Chicken. See also: Malasada trucks.

I think the US could do alot to improve the experience of the family who wants to witness the body being loaded into the cremation machine. For so long, no one in the US wanted to do it, that all the facilities are industrial and pretty unappealing. That's changing now, as more people demand the experience of being present.


Q:

Hi Caitlyn! Longtime listener, first time caller, etc etc

What is your favourite ice cream flavour?

A:

COFFEE. But any and all flavors may apply for consumption by my face.


Q:

Imagine your main goal with The Order was archieved and everyone was death-positive, or at least death-accepting, there were no death taboos and nothing considered "morbid", natural burials were all possible and widely embraced ... what would you do next?


Q:

Thank you for doing this AMA, I'm a relatively new, but big fan! I wanted to know: what is your favorite book of all time? Are you reading now, if so, details?? THANK YOU!!

A:

Ooooo, good one! Favorite book of all time is probably "The Denial of Death," by Ernest Becker. It's like my Bible.

Of course I'm reading now! Just finished "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande (holy gods so important) and started "A Deadly Wandering" which is about the brain and technology through the story of texting while driving.


Q:

HUZZAH!

A:

It's true! See you there, perhaps?


Q:

Hi, Caitlin! Thanks for this AMA, and for all the wonderful work you've been doing to change the conversation surrounding death in our society. I think it's long overdue, and having someone with such a realistic, yet enlightened, view of death as a part of the natural cycle of things is revolutionary.

I imagine, when you first started doing Ask A Mortician (which I love!!), you got a lot of negative feedback from people who aren't comfortable dealing with the reality of death in such a matter of fact way. I'm sure you still face a lot of that now. My question is this - how do you deal with negativity in response to your discussion of what should be one of the most universal topics in life?

Thanks again for everything you're doing, and for helping so many of us come to better terms with death and dying - you're amazing!

A:

It's hard to get 100 people saying they appreciate the work you do to open the conversation about death, and then one person says "you're a shame to your profession and hurting people" and that's the one comment you can't stop thinking about.

But at the end of the day I believe in what I'm doing with every part of me. So anymore, people who say "this is better kept behind the scenes" my response is SORRY NO BYE.

That doesn't mean I'm not open to constructive criticism on specific choices I make, but not criticism of the overall project. I know it's important to face death rationally, and accept no death denier hate.


Q:

In your book, you covered the regret you felt after your grandmother's death in how it was handled - given your views and background. After listening to your book, reading your posts on the The Order's blog, and watching the Mortician videos, I consider myself considerably more death-conscience... thank you very much for that!

My question is, what is your suggestion for how to stay strong in these views in times when a close loved one dies (assuming they didn't have opposing views) and you have pressure from family/funeral directors/healthcare workers/etc. to go the "socially traditional" route? What would you have done differently?

A:

The best thing is to remember is that DEATH IS NOT AN EMERGENCY.

The biggest threat to alternative options and ceremonies is that people feel pressured to do something with the dead now now now. You have time to make a decision, time to weigh your options. The person is dead now and they'll be dead 2 days from now. Take your time, and don't give in to pressure.


Q:

Hi Caitlin! I recently read your book and started watching your Ask a Mortician videos. I am so in awe of someone in the funeral industry that wants death to be something that we don't hide away and let others take care of. I've been telling my friends for years that we live in a culture of death denial. I have been interested in death and the macabre for most of my life and even wanted to be a mortician for a long while. Then I read Jessica Mitford's book and didn't want to be one of those people that tried to sell the bereaved products that they don't need when they are at their most vulnerable. My question is what sort of careers are out there in the alternative funeral industry?

A:

The problem is that right now it's kind of the Wild West in the alternative funeral industry. The people who have jobs created them for themselves, started by volunteering at a natural cemetery, went to a death midwife workshop, started their own funeral homes. There aren't many jobs per se out there (yet). As of right now, you have to be active and be the change you want to see.


Q:

Favourite music?

A:

80s electronic, new wave, industrial.


Q:

Any supernatural or ghost like experiences that would suggest there's something after death?

A:

Not for me, but if you had a different mindset you would think they were supernatural. (Things falling suddenly, body making noises, etc). It's all about what lens/belief you're seeing things through.