So, how do you want to go? Not as in how you’d like to die—I’m guessing “in my sleep” or other variations on “quick and painless” are going to be number one, with a bullet (so to speak). I’m asking a question you actually have some control over, as well as responsibility for: What do you want to happen to your body after you die?
The top corporations in the funeral industry would, of course, like your default answer—or, if you haven’t talked about it, your family’s default answer—to be something like “embalming, hearse, burial plot, graveside service,” which averages $8,000–$10,000 in America these days. (That’s according to the National Funeral Directors Association, the chamber of commerce for the death-care industry.) If you live in Seattle, however, you’re one of the most likely people in the country to opt for cremation—72.6 percent likely, in fact, second only to the residents of Nevada but well over the national average of 43.2 percent.
But Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, host of the popular YouTube video series Ask a Mortician, and author of the new book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, would like you to think a little more creatively about your options. “It was important to undo the lockstep of embalming,” she said in a telephone interview last week, saying an anti-embalming campaign inspired by Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death convinced many baby boomers that the process is expensive, typically involves toxic chemicals, and isn’t necessary. “But now it’s important to undo the lockstep of cremation,” she added, “this push to remove the body from the equation: ‘The soul isn’t in there, so the body doesn’t matter.’” As Doughty puts it in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, this embalm-or-cremate dogma of American death-care—which is, fundamentally, a reflection of cultural squeamishness about corpses—robs some people of a chance for real closure with the natural, non-plasticized body of a loved one:
A corpse doesn’t need you to remember it. In fact, it doesn’t need anything anymore—it’s more than happy to lie there and rot away. It is you who needs the corpse. Looking at the body you understand the person is gone, no longer an active player in the game of life. Looking at the body you see yourself, and you know that you, too, will die. The visual is a call to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.
Part memoir, part manifesto, and part survey of death practices around the world, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a distillation of Doughty’s experiences in the mortuary world, starting with a job she got as a twentysomething at a scrappy San Francisco cremation and burial service run by a few thick-skinned old-timers. Mike, Chris, and Bruce—the trinity that initiated her into the world behind the black curtain—aren’t the corporate shills she says dominate the industry, but were crustier and more down-to-earth than the self-consciously spiritual “death midwives” Doughty ran with for a while. Under their tough-love tutelage, she learned how to retrieve bags of fetuses from the hospital for cremation (bring your own cardboard box), how to talk to a grieving family as you’re wheeling their newly deceased matriarch out the door (be sympathetic but not too effusive), and what advanced human decomposition smells like. “The first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone,” she writes. “Not a fresh, summer citrus, mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose. Add to that a day-old glass of white wine that has begun to attract flies. Top it off with a bucket of fish left in the sun.” She’s like a sommelier of decay.
The book loosely strings together fascinating anecdotes from an industry people don’t tend to discuss around the dinner table. If you see two people wheeling an empty gurney in a hospital, there’s probably a corpse being discreetly transported in a basket underneath. Corporate funeral homes keep toaster ovens baking fresh cookies near their arrangement rooms to mask any whiffs of chemicals or real-life death. The concrete “vaults” many cemeteries require for caskets aren’t legally necessary—they’re just to keep the dirt from settling as the caskets decompose, making the lawn easier to mow. And those experiences led her to found the Order of the Good Death, a collection of artists, academics, and death-industry professionals who are pushing back against the industry. The National Funeral Directors Association, Doughty says, still won’t comment on her or the Order’s existence—sounds like they’re doing something right.
Order member and artist Jae Rhim Lee, for example, is creating a strain of mushroom that will decompose and break down toxins in human corpses. Sarah Wambold and Jeff Jorgenson run pioneering eco-friendly funeral homes in Austin and Seattle, respectively. And writer Bess Lovejoy has written about corpses and funeral history in publications from The Stranger to the Believer.
“Seattle is probably the best place for alternative death care in America right now,” Doughty said, as we have a high concentration of Order members (including cast-glass headstone maker Greg Lundgren) and people on the fast track to join (Katrina Spade, whose Urban Death Project is imagining how bodies can be safely composted in urban settings).
If Doughty and the Order’s death-care revolution is successful, Americans will be more comfortable thinking about death and dying—and preparing for it, seriously considering alternatives such as green burial, composting, and using crematoriums that have carbon-offset policies.
But so what? What good will that do us as individuals and as a culture?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” she said. “I’ve been trying to find ways to prove this in some way—but I believe that taking responsibility for the dead and the fact of our mortality is a step toward taking responsibility for a lot of other things, including the fact that our planet is dying. The way we remove ourselves from death is also what allows us to have drones, warfare at the push of a button… I don’t know that we’re going to be able to save ourselves. Maybe that’s a dire prediction. But the first step is getting back to the most basic reality, which is that we’re going to die.”
I hesitated to ask what Doughty wants to happen to her body after she dies—it seems like such an intimate question—but in the course of our conversation, she volunteered the answer: giving her body to be eaten by scavengers. “The family could actually come and ritually deposit the body, the same way they sometimes do for the cremation machine, and have some sort of ceremony—to leave the body out like Tibetan sky burial or the Parsi Towers of Silence,” both of which leave bodies out for scavenging birds. “All sorts of animals would be into it,” Doughty says. “They all like free meat—which is exactly what humans are.”