Caitlin Doughty is a mortician working in Los Angeles, California. She is the creator of the “Ask a Mortician” channel on YouTube, a New York Times bestselling author, and founder of The Order of the Good Death, a movement focusing on death education. Her new book entitled Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death was published earlier this year and is available in bookstores. Caitlin and her amazing team of death educators also run Undertaking LA, a brick and mortar mortuary in Los Angeles; run an online store; and produce a podcast pertaining to all things related to death. Please take a look at the links provided at the bottom of the page.
What inspired you to work in the mortuary industry? Can you tell us more about your background?
When I was 8 years old I saw the traumatic death of another young person. Or, at least what I assumed was their death, the ambulance shrieked in, took the child away, and no adults would talk to me about it after that. The incident made me incredibly afraid of death. I was always terrified that everyone around me could die at any moment.
But as I got older I worked hard to turn that fear of death into an interest in death. Death is scary, but there is so much we can do as a culture to make it more accessible and safer to discuss. After graduating from college, I went to work at a crematory, cremating the bodies. Ever since then I’ve worked in the funeral industry. I founded the death positive movement to make these conversations more open and safe to other kids like me.
What obstacles did you come across when starting your business and how did you overcome them?
Some people don’t like that I was a young woman who wanted to offer something different in the mortuary world. They didn’t like that I offered low-cost options, and the ability for the family to be involved. Some people think that if you offer something different than what they offer, that you’re insulting them. But I care more about what the families I help think than what other funeral homeowners think. You have to care more about the people you are serving than people who see you as the competition.
Were there moments for you when you felt hopeless and what led you to keep following your heart?
Of course, I’ve felt hopeless. It hurts to have you work be something you care about so much, something you’d like to see change in our culture. You feel responsible for educating every person you see. But if you really care about something, you can’t let failure be an option. It may take you 2 months, it may take you 2 years, but everything worth doing takes time.
What are some common misconceptions about death that you encounter and how do you frame your responses to them?
The biggest misconception is that the dead body is unsafe somehow, and it’s the funeral home’s job to make it safe for the family to be around. Not true! Humans have taken care of their own dead for thousands of years. We didn’t need funeral homes to clean the body or make it safe for the family to be around. It’s nice to have a funeral director to help when someone we love dies, but the dead body isn’t more dangerous or infectious or unsafe after the person dies. In fact, a dead body is safer than a living body, because it’s not coughing or sneezing or pooping.
For any of our children who are interested in going into mortuary science, what advice would you have for them?
Make sure the job is right for you before committing to several years of mortuary school. Work at a local funeral home to start. Even if you begin at the lowest rung- delivering flowers, cleaning the chapel, washing the hearse- that will give you a sense of whether you like the environment and whether you can handle the sadness of grieving families. That funeral home may like you so much they’ll give you a job out of mortuary school!
So many of the young people we work with have witnessed a lot of tragedy. How would you explain death to them so that it’s not something to fear? What would you say to help them through the grieving process?
First of all, it’s not fair that you have to experience the harsh reality of death every day, while other kids get to grow up avoiding it. It’s deeply unfair. Every month in America there is more and more gun violence, and more and more children are living with at least a part of the fear of violence and death that you grew up with. Now, it’s not your responsibility to help others. BUT, if you are able, your stories, your writing, your speaking can help others and they can help you. Your experience is necessary and important. I had some trauma when I was young, and sharing it to try to help others is one of the best things I’ve done for myself as an adult. It has helped to heal me and make me more comfortable talking about difficult subjects.
Natural death, the end of life after many years, is nothing to fear. But the tragic deaths of young people, especially through violence, are not acceptable. Accepting death means accepting we are mortal and will all die one day, it doesn’t mean accepting death by violence. We need to understand why people use violence, and share our stories, and work together to change things.
As you can imagine, a lot of the kids we work with have become almost numb to death because of gang violence and the environments they come from. What should they do when that happens?
Sometimes we become numb to protect ourselves. And that makes sense! We all need boundaries. We can’t think of sad things all the time. You might like comic books, or art, or video games, too. But we can all do one thing every day to help our community. It can be small. Anything from asking someone who lost a family member how they’re doing, to sending a message on social media, to signing a petition online. Some small things to make sure you’re still connected to the world around you, acknowledging that everyone is human and can use our help. Then make sure you’re also protecting yourself with boundaries.
So many of our kids are very talented and they’re all unique but at times afraid of being themselves. What advice do you have for embracing yourself and your talents?
It is SO much more fun to be yourself. Life is way too short to be performing a role for someone else- how boring! I work running a mortuary and talking about death to the public, but I get to act, make people laugh, use public speaking, write- all these talents I love. That’s the exact thing that makes my job fun, I get to talk about the subject I love (death) all day, and use my many talents to do so. There wasn’t a job like this in existence, so I created it for myself. That’s takes time, but don’t waste your talents. Even if you have a more normal job, come home at the end of the day and get weird, make art, perform, play. Don’t lose your unique and strange wonderful self!
Caitlin’s TED Talk about the most important corpses in her life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKIyDMaxh4w
Ask a Mortician: https://www.youtube.com/user/OrderoftheGoodDeath
Caitlin’s New Book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/039365270X/ref=nav_timeline_asin?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1
The Order of the Good Death: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com