Caitlin Doughty remembers her first encounter with death.
"That thud — that noise of the girl's body hitting laminate — would play over and over again in my mind, dull thud after dull thud," she writes in her new book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. She was 8, in a shopping mall in her home state, sunny Hawaii. The girl fell from a balcony. "Today, the thuds might be called a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, but back then the noises were just the drumbeat of my childhood."
Ever since, Doughty's life has been all about death — though happily and comically so.
"I think about death most of the day, every day," the mortician cheerily tells OZY, rather like talking about a high school crush, not our inevitable doom. "We can't escape death, and choosing to ignore it only makes it more scary."
That's Doughty's special talent: not to make light of death, but to make death light. On her YouTube channel, Ask a Mortician, she's built a morbid following by openly discussing the gruesome and fascinating world of the dead — everything from decomposition to necrophilia — while making her audience laugh.
Now 30 years old, Doughty looks like nothing if not a 21st-century reincarnation of Morticia Addams, from the popular TV series The Addams Family, not far from a dead ringer down to the pale white skin and jet-black hair. (OK, Caitlin has bangs; Morticia's hair parted in the middle.)
Doughty embraced her morbid proclivities. In university she studied medieval history, focusing on death rituals and plunging into essays like "Necro-Fantasy & Myth: Interpretation of Death Amongst the Natives of Pago Pago." Yet the books weren't enough to satiate her curiosity; she wanted to put her interest into practice, firsthand. So she got her first job as a crematory operator, incinerating dead bodies.
As a 23-year-old with zero experience, her biggest shock when entering the funeral industry was not so much the piles of dead bodies but the lack of involvement on the part of the deceased's family. "We would pick up the body in a van and then return it to them in ashes. And that was it," she recalls. "Often it would be just me and the body."
Doughty saw this as a sign of Western society's deep-rooted phobia of death and decided, there and then, that she would devote her career to building a more death-positive society. The aim was to help people deal with their biggest fear and broaden their postmortem options: from natural burials and open-air pyres to ash paintings or liquid cremation.
She enrolled in Cypress College of Mortuary Science in California, became a certified mortician and founded The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists determined "to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality" through talks, roundtable discussions and "death salons," where people meet to chat about their inevitable doom.
It turns out Doughty has a knack for this, making our ultimate fear seem a little less scary. Her YouTube appearances are goofy and slightly surreal, featuring vintage medical devices for lobotomies, mummified bats, dancing cats and drag-queen shows.
Making light of a very serious issue might seem tasteless, but Doughty has a clear purpose. "If my videos were just sober reflections on mortality, nobody would watch," she says. Her goal is to get as many people as possible thinking about death and talking about it with their loved ones.
Off-camera, Doughty speaks about the importance of her work soothingly and eloquently with a penchant for the allegorical. "The Grim Reaper has his hand up all our butts," she says. "He's puppetting all of us because everything that we do, every project we undertake, child we have, building we build is because we know we are going to die. It's the main driving force of our lives. If we ignore our death, we end up just going around completely oblivious to why we do the things we do!
"I would never claim doing this is easy," she adds. "The death of a loved one will never suck less, but burial and mourning can still be very beautiful."
That's why she is opening her own alternative funeral service, Undertaking LA, to teach people how to handle a corpse so that families can take care of their loved ones after they pass. "It's ironic," she admits. "I'm a mortician telling people they actually don't need a mortician."
Traditional members of the funeral industry are more skeptical.
"I do see the emotional value for the family getting involved, but in many cases it's virtually impossible. Will they have the equipment to carry the person? And what about bodies that have been autopsied?" says Roger Lori, a mortuary expert with 40 years of experience in the industry. "Some people will never be able to touch a dead body. It's a born fear, like the fear of snakes. I don't think that'll ever change."
Indeed, we are not likely to see DIY Viking funerals down the Hudson River or human ash paintings at the MoMA anytime soon, but with her sinister sense of humor and funerary expertise, Doughty continues to push for us to face what we fear most.
"Accepting your own mortality is like eating your vegetables: You may not want to do it, but it's good for you," she says.
So if you have to think about death, just imagine broccoli.