‘A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves’
Caitlin Doughty has written a surprisingly uplifting book about working in a San Francisco mortuary. Her message? The West needs to stop hiding from death
Caitlin Doughty: ‘When we die we are lying there like a side of beef. We are not super-special, we are not above animals, or dissolve into magic and light.’ Photograph: Ryan Orange
Caitlin Doughty misses the dead and death. “I really miss it. The dead body does mean something to me. Being able to be around death is comforting and exciting and it makes me feel alive.”
In 2006, the Hawaiian-born American, then just 23, went to work in a San Francisco mortuary, where, on her first day, she learned how to shave a recently deceased man. “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss, or the loss of her virginity,” Doughty writes in the opening lines of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory.
Her account of her time in the family-owned mortuary is filled with such lines: some will make the reader laugh out loud; others – such as what happens to fat people in the crematories (the American term for crematorium) – will send readers under the table squirming.
However, everything is done with purpose. Doughty believes the West – some countries more than others – has pulled away too much from death and dying, damaging both our ability to grieve and to understand our own mortality.
Doughty’s fascination with death began when she was five, with a pet fish called Superfly. The fish became infected with a parasite. Soon, Superfly was floating upon the surface. Her mother had prepared “the big speech” for her daughter, where she would explain the cycle of life. However, her father had a different approach. He dumped Superfly in the toilet bowl, took his daughter to the pet shop and bought a new fish. “My first lesson in death was the possibility of cheating it,” writes Doughty.
Her second lesson, however, removed such illusions. She was in a shopping centre with her parents for a Halloween costume contest. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a little girl climb up on a railing, and then fall 30ft, head first: “That thud – that noise of the girl’s body hitting – would repeat in my mind, dull thud after dull thud.”
Don’t fear the reaper
Overall, Doughty’s interest in death is surprisingly uplifting. She endlessly encourages others to be less fearful of it, but, most importantly, not only not to be fearful of the corpse but to embrace it.
In the United Kingdom, the body is immediately removed from the family’s sight. The funeral takes place 10 days later, in largely empty churches or crematoriums, hidden away from the public.
If the English are distant from death, some Americans are positively remote from it, preferring to have the dead embalmed before they are returned for display with waxy, almost tanned faces.
It was not always thus. In the third century, the bodies of martyred saints were tourist attractions, drawing large crowds of worshippers who believed that the saintly spirit lurked around the corpse, dispensing miracles and holiness.
In time, the Catholic Church charged for burial spots inside churches next to saints: “If there was a nook in the church big enough for a corpse, you were sure to find a dead body in it,” Doughty writes.
The practice worked better in some places than in others. Without refrigeration, the “abominable smell” of decomposition – think liquorice, mixed with citrus undertones – could not be hidden even with “incense, myrrh and other aromatic odours”.
Embalming in the United States took off during the American civil war, when families on both sides of the conflict sought to get their sons’ bodies back for burial. Because of the heat, the railways quickly refused to carry them.
Embalmers took to the battlefields, competing with one another as they, literally, fought over the dead, each one promising that no body that went through their hands “would ever go black”.
In some cases “arsenicals, zinc chloride, bichloride of mercury, salts of alumina, sugar of lead, and a host of salts, alkalis and acids” were used to preserve. Cheaper options included the evisceration of internal organs, and their replacement with sawdust.
Offering secrets from the world of embalming, Doughty tells of “the trocar” – a hollow-tubed stabbing implement – that is used to puncture organs, and drain them of liquids, gases and waste.
Over time, embalmers moved from simply ensuring that bodies could be transported long distances to changing the way the public viewed the dead, convincing them that the body is a source of infection and danger.
In Japan, one undertaker, Shinmon Aoki, was ridiculed for preparing bodies for burial. “His family disowned him and his wife wouldn’t sleep with him because he was defiled by corpses,” writes Doughty. So Aoki purchased a surgical robe, mask, and gloves and began showing up to people’s houses dressed in full medical garb. People began to respond differently; they bought the image he was selling and called him “doctor”.
Cycle of life
In all, the trend is towards removing people from the cycle of life, Doughty believes. In July she will open a funeral home in Los Angeles that will seek to help families bury their dead, rather than taking the duty away from them.
“We’ll come in to help the family take care of the body. Then, we’ll go with them to the crematorium and they can watch the body being loaded in. We’ll be there to assist, rather than just take the body away and take it behind the scenes,” she says.
The connection “is a reminder that you will be this one day and a reminder of how you are living your life. One hundred and fifty years ago, people were dying around you all the time. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s go back to a high infant mortality rate’, but there are people in their 30s and 40s who have never been to a funeral, or never known anyone who has died, except if it was a young person who committed suicide.”
Her own mother was 65 before she saw her first dead body. “It is easy to go through your life and not see it,” she says. “My parents are my hardest customers, the baby-boomers.”
A recognition by today’s society that the living should spend time with the dead would help the bereaved to “understand that the person is really dead, but also that they are going to die, that they are going to be this body”.
By now, Doughty is in full flow. “It is only by acknowledging that we are all afraid of death that you can figure out where the core of your being comes from.
“[Our way] does give us a sense that death is not real, that death is almost like a video game, that someone dies and the body disappears, but that is not the reality. It doesn’t give us a sense either that we are animals, we are flesh. When we die we are lying there like a side of beef. We are not super-special, we are not above animals, we don’t dissolve into magic and light,” she says, with a beaming smile despite the graphic imagery.
“We are all little ants down here, banging into each other. We are animals and we are fallible and we will decay and we will die. When you have that humility, not getting enough ‘likes’ on Instagram is not going to take you down,” she says.
Death in a secular world
Doughty’s creed, that society should not push death into the background, operates with or without religion. She is not religious and “not very spiritual”; she draws a distinction between the two.
“I have no faith myself. I do it without that. Having this increasingly secular culture, we need touch points, we need to have rituals that we believe in, even if they are unconnected to any religion.
“Treating flesh and bone as a more sacred thing – whether or not you believe in any sort of religious belief – is an important rite of passage. It is something that is valuable and something that we hardly ever do.”
Doughty looks kindly on a growing desire in the United States for wild burial, where a corpse is placed in nothing but a shroud and buried 3ft – the ideal depth for speedy decomposition – in protected lands.
Cremation has its uses, but she favours alkaline hydrolysis, where a lye made with potassium carbonate and hot water is used to break down the body quickly.
“It is legal only in eight states in the US right now, but I really think it is going to be the future. It doesn’t emit carbon and uses much less natural gas. It is generally better. If you give people a choice between fire and water, they usually choose water. It is a Judeo-Christian discomfort about fire.”
Soon, Doughty will be back in the comfort of a Californian mortuary. “It is such an important reality check to be around the dead. As a practitioner, it makes me feel really good to be good at it, to be able to offer people comfort.”
Given that she is only 30, Doughty hardly obsesses about her own mortality, even if she is comfortable talking about it. “The ideal thing to do would be to have the body laid out for animals, put out on the lawn and have the carrion that want my body come and eat it. I am not a better animal than they are. That’s the ideal method of disposal. It makes me feel good to know that I am part of this universe.”
- Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory is published by Canongate Books
AT HOME WITH CORPSES: ‘IT’S A MUCH HEALTHIER WAY’
Doughty favours Muslim, Jewish and Irish funeral rites, speaking enthusiastically of a conversation with an Irish woman in Scotland who told of the wake her family had when her father died.
“She had him in the parlour. There was drinking in the other room. The kids were there and went in and poked at the body and explored. That is really a model that I happen to agree with; a much healthier way,” she says. “Hearing her speak, some English people were clearly uncomfortable. In their case, in family funerals the casket was closed. Distance was put between the corpse and the living.”