On October 12, I had the pleasure of finally meeting my favorite mortician, Caitlin Doughty. It was a signing for her second published work, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death hosted by distinguished D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose. The same humor and charisma that makes Doughty’s “Ask a Mortician” YouTube series so successful lends itself well to writing and book promotion, delighting her audience and readers. When I first covered Doughty in an interview and book review in 2014, I called her a death geek to highlight her relevance to our site. Now it’s increasingly clear that no stretch of the imagination is needed to show that the good death movement and feminist movement are intertwined.
From Here to Eternity, which debuted at #9 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, explores a range of death and mourning rituals around the world. Alternating between exotic locales like rural Indonesia and alternative practices closer to home such as the open funeral pyre in Crestone, Colorado, Doughty aims to demonstrate that there are many safe and valid ways to treat a dead body, and that the current way we do things here in most of America is not the be all end all. Since her goal is to promote empathy and awareness, not shock and judgement, Doughty was careful to only choose destinations where she could gain respectful access, being welcomed by the community rather than barging in like a tourist. She champions more personal involvement by the grieving friends and family and the integration of innovative methods and technology into our death industry and culture. The dominant practice in America now is expensive and impersonal, bad for the environment, and heavy in denial. Many people don’t communicate their wishes before they pass for what should be done with their body and many have trouble finding closure through the mourning options that our culture deems acceptable. Doughty aims to change all that.
This movement to re-imagine our relationship with death is currently being pioneered mainly by women, including Doughty and her friends Stephanie at the open pyre and Katrina and Dr. J. at the North Carolina body farm. Doughty hypothesizes that there is a freedom in embracing decomposition that rebels against the objectification and strict beauty standards women are held to in life. Furthermore, deathcare was historically considered women’s work but has undergone a “seismic shift” since industrialization. “Caring for a corpse went from visceral, primeval work performed by women to a ‘profession,’ an ‘art,’ and even a ‘science,’ performed by well-paid men,” she writes. Now women are making a stand to take the industry back through organizations like Doughty’s The Order of the Good Death, as well as through small businesses and scientific research in the death industry. Doughty acknowledged that it takes a certain privilege to be able to afford to be a rebel in the field, but hopefully as the movement progresses alternative death practices will become open to all.
Another place where death and womanhood often intersect is childbearing. Although we have mostly moved passed the era that lasted for much of human history where mother and child were both nearly as likely to die in the process as to survive, the U.S. still has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation and miscarriage and non-viable pregnancies are still stark realities for a number of women. In her chapter on Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, Doughty details her colleague Sarah’s experience losing her baby at six-months pregnant. Diagnosed with trisomy 13, the baby was not developing correctly and would not have survived more than a few days past birth, so Sarah was advised to terminate the pregnancy. Wracked with grief, Sarah had to march past protesters who did not care that her baby was already dead, or as good as, and her support network treated her like she was “radioactive,” afraid and unsure how to face the notion that babies are only mortal and can die like the rest of us. Sarah finally found solace in her Mexican heritage, in the intimate and engaged way Mexicans traditionally honor and acknowledge their dead. I really appreciate that Doughty included this depiction of late-term abortion in her work and hope that it will do something to help dispel the harmful myth that women get such abortions for no good reason. Sarah’s experience shows instead that it often happens to women who truly want a baby but through health complications of their own or of the baby’s cannot carry to term. These women are facing something traumatic with few resources for comfort and they deserve empathy, not scorn.
Doughty also addressed the issue of sexism in media and the professional world. She told a story at her signing of her ill-fated venture into the world of reality television. The initial idea for From Here to Eternity was born when a producer reached out to her during the trend of reality shows about weird jobs. Doughty suggested the concept of travelling the world looking at different ways people dealt with death, and after some initial squeamishness over “the whole death thing,” the TV people were down. They shot a pilot episode that turned out really nice but was rejected for a 13-episode deal. The reason: “no one will watch a show like this hosted by a woman.” They toyed with the idea of getting her a male co-host to act as the expert, despite Doughty’s reminder that she, in fact, was an expert. They couldn’t find a good fit for the co-host role and the project was scrapped. Looking back, Doughty thinks this was for the better, as she was able to observe world death rituals more respectfully as a note-taking scholar than as a TV persona with cameras and microphones in tow. The publishing industry, while still rife with its own inclusion problems, had no trouble accepting a female expert and thus the concept ended up on the page instead of the screen.
At the end of her talk, Doughty held an extended Q & A session, even answering some questions from very young fans. Two little boys attending with their mother each asked intelligent questions and Doughty did not shy away from direct and detailed answers about embalming and decay. In her opinion, children’s natural curiosity about death should be met head on, not shoved under a rug. When it came time to sign, she was extremely personable, taking time to exchange a few words and pose for a picture with each fan.
In conclusion, From Here to Eternity is a must read for anyone who will ever have to confront grief and death (that’s all of you!) and if you ever have the chance to see Doughty in person, it’s totally worth it. Her books and talks cover more than just death, including major feminist issues like reproductive rights and workplace discrimination. The good death movement is driven by women and young people and could use the support of someone like you.
What’s next on deck for Caitlin Doughty? She revealed at the signing that she and her team are working on a 30-minute documentary about the history of America’s death industry and what we can do to revolutionize it. The documentary is slated to be released around the winter holidays (just in time to watch it in time with your family, Doughty half-joked). But seriously, never a better time to talk to your loved ones about advance directives, as Doughty would say!