Caitlin Doughty on death denial, the funeral industry, and our mortality

I’d never heard of Caitlin Doughty.

It wasn’t until I was waiting for my turn outside of a library bathroom one day and happened to look at a portable shelf to my right, the kind where books sit waiting to be wheeled off and reshelved, and saw the book: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty.

Maybe it was the word crematory and how it isn’t a word you just happen upon in your daily life, or ever really think about, but I picked up the book and started reading.

Turns out, Doughty is a 30-something year-old champion of the alternative death industry, passionate about changing western society’s views on death and how we care for our dead. She was in her late twenties when she wrote her memoir “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” on her first six years in the American funeral industry.

(She’s also a licensed mortician, and host and creator of the educational YouTube series, Ask a Mortician.)

So, what is a 20-something doing working with dead bodies so earnestly, as a crematory operator? I wondered the same thing, and Doughty reveals early in her book how a traumatic event she witnessed as a child plunged her into a spiral of fear then fascination with death. Eventually her morbid curiosity led her to study medieval history in college, then to the gates of the crematory as her first gig post-graduation.

This book isn’t for everyone, as Doughty warns in her prelude: “For those who do not wish to read realistic depictions of death and dead bodies, you have stumbled upon the wrong book.”

Ironically, demystifying death and challenging you to look at it in the face and form a healthy understanding of it is just what Doughty is trying to do with her memoir.

Today, through her death positive movement, The Order of the Good Death, Doughty is on a mission to bring awareness to this topic that has become, over the last 100 years, very taboo in American culture. (So taboo that when I saw the word crematory on the cover of a book, my attention was piqued because this is just not a word you see or say.)

On Death Denial

In our modern western society, the dead are basically invisible. We do everything in our power to hide the realities of death from our minds and from our eyes. We tuck death away behind curtains, beneath crisp white sheets, inside sterilized hospital rooms or basement morgues, in funeral homes with shaded windows, behind euphemisms liked “passed away.” The practice of embalming, accented by makeup and pink viewing lights, further emphasizes our desire to hide the realities of death. We don’t want to face death, which is our ultimate truth as living beings—that we will all die.  

We are, according to Doughty, in death denial.

“Looking mortality straight in the eye is no easy feat. To avoid the exercise, we choose to stay blindfolded, in the dark as to the realities of death and dying. But ignorance is not bliss, only a deeper kind of terror.”

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Doughty isn’t calling for us to contemplate our mortality daily or to become comfortable around corpses, but she does challenge us to think about how and where we derive meaning from our customs and rituals with death, if we even have any. Because today, she posits, we are more disconnected than connected to the process surrounding death.

Doughty brings to light that there was a time in history where the dead weren’t so invisible in western society—where people interacted more intimately with their dead, cared for them directly and set them up for viewing in the family home.

In fact, back then, people were more likely to die in their homes than any other place and that norm has shifted tremendously as more and more people are dying in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice care. Today, we seem to want the dead anywhere else but in the safe, comfortable bubble of where people do the living.

“We live in a world where people rarely die in their homes, and if they do, they’re carted off to the funeral home the second after taking their last breath. If a North American has seen a dead body, that body has likely been embalmed, made up and dressed in its Sunday finest by a funeral-home employee.”

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Doughty suggests that the American culture’s disinvolvement in death is problematic, not only because it keeps us in a state of death denial, but it feeds the commodification of our dead within the framework of the billion-dollar funeral industry.

The shift from personally caring for the dead to handing the dead off to be cared for by others began right around the time that embalming arose at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Doughty shares some interesting history behind the rise of embalming and how it was born more out of a logistical necessity for transporting bodies to surviving family members who longed to see the faces of their loved ones one last time.

She shares how embalming has evolved into the standard procedure that it is today, and how it paved the way for undertakers to create a real profession out of the business of caring for the dead.

This all sparked the beginnings of the funeral industry, which over the following decades would change people’s perceptions and the way they interacted—or didn’t—with their dead.

On the Funeral Industry

Now you may say this isn’t a bad thing, to have a service that cares for your dead so you don’t have to. And yet, Doughty provides an incredibly insightful perspective on the benefits and even importance of playing an intimate role in the death process, through the lens of death rituals of cultures and religions from around the world.

In many cultures, both past and present, there’s no turning away from the dead or sending them elsewhere; there is a bearing witness, and even more than that, an embracing, sometimes literal, as a way to honor the dead, and also as a chance to face our own mortality. The funeral industry, says Doughty, takes that chance away from us by removing us from the process.

“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 actually 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 calls to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.”

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

A note on Doughty’s humor, and a trigger warning (not all who die are adults)

Doughty manages to make a book about death not only interesting and thought-provoking, but funny and entertaining. She successfully keeps this heavy topic light with her clever humor that I seriously enjoyed. There are some graphic details at times that made me wonder why I had chosen to eat a squishy cupcake while reading a book about corpses being prepared for cremation.

I’m sharing this trigger warning because there is a chapter about babies. It never occurred to me that she’d go there but it makes sense that she did. Because not all who die are adults.

Doughty handled this chapter gracefully, and I say this as someone who has two small children. Actually, in this chapter, which she calls “Devil Babies” in reference to a thesis she wrote for her medieval history degree, I laughed out loud one time. Yes, she’s that funny that she made me laugh during a dead baby chapter.

She also intelligently placed this delicate chapter in the first half of the book so that your mind doesn’t have to linger on it for so long, because you end up moving on to the next chapters.

I’ll admit I was nervous going into this chapter. As I began to realize what it was about, I hesitated and wondered whether I could handle reading it. But truly, her humor saved the day and I very much appreciated that.

In fact, her humor is one of the things that makes this book so easily digestible and entertaining; it keeps the mood up throughout, which is very necessary if you’re going to spend your leisure time reading a book about death. There’s only so much you can take before getting bogged down by the topic, yet I never once felt bogged down, only entertained and reflective.

I think her attitude rubbed off on me because during the weeks I was reading this book I referred to it endearingly as “my death book,” as in, to my husband: “Hey babe, on your way back from the kitchen can you grab me my death book from the kitchen island please?”

Catch a glimpse of her humor and style on her YouTube series, Ask a Mortician.

On Mortality

This book is a memoir about the early years of Doughty’s career in the funeral industry, but it’s more than that. It’s a contemplation on our mortality and our relationship or lack-thereof with death. It’s about the ways in which we choose to engage or disengage, consciously or not, with the fact that we are all one day going to die, and what will happen to our bodies when we die.

From the history of embalming, to death rituals and values from different cultures and times in our world, to stories and perspectives from philosophy, literature and history texts, to her own personal and honest experiences, this book is a deep dive into everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about death.

Doughty has many criticisms on western society’s approach and attitude toward death and death care, and throughout the book you see how her own ideas on a “better” approach evolve as she peels away layers of knowledge and understanding as a then-new person in the death industry.

This book made me think… a lot. It was fascinating information to learn about, but it also made me reflect on my own beliefs and general knowledge, and what I would (will) do when faced with the death of loved ones, or even what I would want done to my own body after I die. Do I even know the death rituals that my cultures practice? Do I have opinions on what is important to me? And that’s precisely what I feel Doughty wants us to not be afraid to think about, because in the throes of dealing with a death, you often don’t know what to think, so you’re carried through the process instead of playing a conscious part in it.

I was reflective for a long time after finishing the book, as I saw myself, my loved ones, and the people around me through a new lens. Trivial things felt a little more trivial. Dreams and ambitious felt a little more urgent. (Doughty poses, hopefully, that being death-aware isn’t depressing, that it is actually the fuel that drives us toward our achievements and legacies because in our heart of hearts we know our time here is limited.)

The more we accept death as a normal part of our lives, the more we can talk and think about it in a constructive way and find out what’s important to us. Being death-aware can also help prepare us for what Doughty calls a “good death,” which can mean something different to each person.

One person’s good death could mean giving away most of their possessions near the end so that they’re not leaving so many things behind. It could mean making amends with certain individuals in your life as you acknowledge that you truly don’t know when your time will be up for such an opportunity.

It could mean understanding your options within the traditional funeral industry (or outside of it) and making decisions so your loved ones don’t have to. It could mean releasing the root cause of your fears of death so you can enjoy living with a little less burden.

On her website, The Order of the Good Death, Doughty has plenty of reading materials and resources to help us get educated on how to engage with death in a healthy way, without overt fear and despair. It is indeed overwhelming to think about, but Doughty suggests that it doesn’t have to be.

More books from Caitlin Doughty:

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death