Ask A Mortician: Caitlin Doughty – WORD Christchurch

If Caitlin Doughty had her way, we’d all be dealing with death very differently. Mortician and author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes she believes we have become too distanced from caring for our dead. Less than 100 years ago, that was what people did, they cared for their own dead. A sold-out Concert Hall audience at The Piano was ready to be convinced.

Caitlin_Doughty_in_red_evergreen_background
Caitlin Doughty. Image supplied

This was one of those events that barely needed a co-presenter. Not that he did any harm, but the forcefield of Caitlin’s presentation was so dynamic that I believe it would have been better to just give her a podium and free rein. She is just bursting with life, engaging, articulate and with the Best Hair At The Festival (a hitherto unexploited literary category.)

Our current means of dealing with the dead is 99% money driven. We have bought into the juggernaut that is the funeral business. In particular Doughty has the embalming business in her cross hairs. Nowadays she believes most embalming is completely unnecessary, expensive and results in corpses that do not even look like the deceased. Yet we continue with this practice – and I use that ‘we’ intentionally – apparently New Zealand ranks second in the world after the States in embalming statistics.

Not only is this bad for our pockets, but Doughty does not believe it has done our grieving process any favours either. Take children, for example. Doughty herself had a traumatic first encounter with death when she was about eight years old. No one spoke her through it and the spectre of death haunted her for ages. She jokingly refers to her relationship with death as the longest relationship of her life.

Smoke Gets in Your EyesHow did it all start? Straight out of a Medieval History degree she ‘tricked’ her way into employment in a funeral home where she was lucky enough to be given opportunities to do all aspects of the work, like scrape bones out of ovens, fetch bodies from where they had died under bridges and deal with grieving family members. She remembers (and how could a girl ever forget) at the age of 22 being left alone in the morgue to shave her first corpse. She feared she would get this horribly wrong with her wee pink razor and lashings of shaving cream. But bodies she says are just people, only a lot easier to deal with.

What are the alternatives to the expensive over-professionalised approach to death we are currently saddled with? The first hurdle to get over is to believe that the dead body is beautiful just as it is and that there is a sacred quality to caring for the dead.  Everyone deserves ‘a good death’ but to get that you need to think about your own death and you need to talk about death to your family members. A good death is not going to happen all by itself.

The second hurdle is to become better informed about alternatives. Like initiatives to develop the composting of bodies, where instead of burning corpses, they are allowed to rot in an enhanced composting environment and so turn into soil in 6-8 weeks. There is also alkaline hydrolysis which flash decomposes the body and finally there is conservation burial where burials happen in endangered land and conservation areas.

Question time. Oh dear. First two not too bad – we got the afterlife question. Nada for her, said Doughty. She sees her life as a film reel that just runs out eventually and flaps about for a bit before it goes still. God forbid that the afterlife should be peopled by everyone she has ever known – all those dead people lining up to meet her at the Pearly Gates, thanks but no thanks. We got a question on hospital deaths, a euthanasia query and a formaldehyde question (look it up on Google lady!) Then the mic fell into the hands of a man who rambled all over the terrain, couldn’t get to a question, and just at the point when you want to trample over other patrons heads and wrench the mic out of his hand to ask your own perfect question, Doughty somehow managed to wrest a possible interpretation from his ramblings out of him.

As for my question, it might not be perfect, but I could have spat it out in nine words:

“Has being a mortician ever affected your love life?”

I believe she would have loved it!

Caitlin Doughty and Marcus Elliott
Caitlin Doughty and Marcus Elliott

See our photos from the Caitlin Doughty session.

More WORD Christchurch

Morticians in love

Cover of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior FuneralsMorticians also fall in love.

This must have been happening since the beginning of time, but only now (to the best of my knowledge) has there been a such a rush of material on the love life of those who deal with the dead.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals is a 2012 first novel by Welsh writer Wendy Jones. Set in small town Wales in the 1920s, Wilfred makes the kind of mistake that only the blurters of this world will identify with. He hears the sentence “Will you marry me Grace” come out of his mouth and crash onto the picnic rug when that was not what he was thinking at all. Almost immediately events get completely out of control. There is an unwanted pregnancy, a new love, the mother-in-law from hell and, of course,  the dead. Wilfred is at best naive, at worst a little dimwitted (especially about women), but he is unfailingly courteous to the dead. He is a decent man.

Cover of A Trick I Learned From Dead MenFast forward some eighty years and meet Lee Hart, a young mortician in London. His story is told in A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge. The content of these two books is quite similar, but the styles of writing are very different. For that reason alone they are worth reading. Lee is surrounded by death both at work, and in unfolding episodes, at home as well. Yet he remains resolutely upbeat, positive about life and ready to love and be loved. He is a kind young man whose dead customers end up on the receiving end of some of the best conversations of their lives when they finally end up in his care.

In case this is all becoming too sweet and fluffy for your liking, fear not, for Evelyn Waugh produced an acid drop of a little book in The Loved One (first published in 1948). Set in Hollywood, there are two funeral parlours, one for humans (Whispering Glades) and one for pets (Happier Hunting Grounds). Senior Mortician Mr Joyboy,  a mysterious cosmetician, a murder, several corpses and a seemingly hapless Cover of The Loved Onepoet combine to make this Black Humour at its best.

But if you want soulful and beautiful, head straight to the library DVD section and watch the Japanese film Departures in which a young musician, having lost his position in the orchestra, applies for a job in what he thought was a travel agency. Instead he ends up as a Nokanshi (encoffineer) in a small Japanese town. In this film the taboos that cling to those who deal with the dead almost ruin his marriage.

And taboos there are. Western culture has separated us from dealing with death. I have never met a mortician, never met anyone who wanted to be in that line of work. Certainly it doesn’t crop up in career guidance at school. As a result, I felt quite squeamish reading bits of these books. So it was important for me to be reminded that there is a human side to dealing with death and that it is undeniably true:

Morticians also fall in love.