After studying medieval history at the University of Chicago, Doughty moved to San Francisco, where she worked in a crematorium. She currently is a licensed funeral director/mortician in Los Angeles and is in the process of opening her own alternative funeral service, Undertaking LA, to help people help themselves (handle a corpse). Doughty also runs the web series “Ask a Mortician” and is a co-founder of The Order of the Good Death.
In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty chronicles her time working in the crematorium and explores a wide range of ideas and beliefs in funeral and mourning practices — historical, cultural, and alternative. “Doughty’s book is a clear-eyed look at death and a call for us all to think about a difficult topic in healthier ways,” said David Enyeart of Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Fans of Sarah Vowell and Mary Roach will thank you for introducing them to Doughty’s intelligent and engaging new book.”
What inspired you to write this book?
Caitlin Doughty: After what I saw working at the crematory, I couldn’t not write this book. It was immediately obvious that there needed to be more open dialogue about what was going on behind the scenes in the death care industry. As I went down the rabbit hole of how we got to the point of death denial that we’re at historically, the story only became more fascinating.
There are snippets of historical facts in your book. Did your background in medieval history shape the way you wrote this book? Did it influence your way of thinking about death?
CD: Absolutely. In many ways medieval death is my starting point. I’m not saying we should go back to a time of plague and famine and high mortality rates, but we can learn so much from the open attitude of the late medieval period. When death is everywhere in art, culture, and literal dead bodies, you can’t ignore it like we attempt to do in the 21st century.
In your studies of death rituals from around the world, have you found one that fascinates you more than the others?
CD: It’s hard to choose, but I think disposal by vultures is my favorite. Whether it’s Tibetan Sky Burial or the Parsi Towers of Silence, anytime you get vultures involved it’s fascinating — although there are vulture shortages in India now because of various modern pressures. There aren’t enough vultures to properly dispose of the bodies.
Would you tell us a little about The Order of the Good Death?
CD: The Order has been around for almost four years now. It’s a group of death professionals (morticians, medical historians, academics, artists) who are doing interesting work to bring an understanding of death to the masses. I want people to know that we know there is a pathology with how we face death, and that there are good people working to change that.
What is Undertaking LA and how do you hope it will serve the needs of the bereaved?
CD: Undertaking LA is a new model of DIY death seminars and education that empowers families to take care of the dead themselves. People have an incredible amount of legal power to go around funeral homes and grieve the way they want to grieve.
Are you working on anything now?
CD: The main project is Undertaking LA, as well as Death Salon, which is the practical arm of the Order of the Good Death. Death Salons are in the style of 18th century conversation salons — people coming together to discuss mortality.
Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you as a child?
CD: Books were everything in my childhood. I was an only child, so I was alone quite a bit. I read constantly. When I was little I found Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell in my grandmother’s attic. I must have read it 45 times. And, let’s be honest, I read a hell of a lot of Sweet Valley High.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
CD: Any place I travel, if there’s a cemetery, an antique store, or a bookstore, I’m there. Preferably all three. Antique-book stores also welcome. Just last week my boyfriend and I were at a small antique/book store in Oelwien, Iowa, called Turkey Bottom Haven (not kidding) and he found me a book on headhunting. There is nothing better than treasure-hunting finds like that. At home in L.A., it’s all about Skylight Books and The Last Bookstore.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)
I would be too embarrassed to give out my own book! I would put The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker in everyone’s hands. But it’s a hard book to get through, honestly. I’m still waiting for someone to do a rad Denial of Death graphic novel version for the masses. Anyone? C’mon!
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty (W.W. Norton & Company, Hardcover, 9780393240238). Publication Date: September 15, 2014.
To learn more about Caitlin Doughty and The Order of the Good Death, visit orderofthegooddeath.com.
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