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Caitlin Doughty turns early trauma into a life helping bring 'the good death'

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

Caitlin Doughty's father's skull. No, literally. The skull he used when teaching anthropology. And of course, it has to sit on a pile of books to symbolize Death's primacy over any of man's works. John Rabe

Off-Ramp host John Rabe talks with Caitlin Doughty, author of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory."

With its taxidermy decor, Caitlin Doughty's apartment is a fitting place to discuss death. The stuffed ermine and 6-point buck are "aesthetically pleasing and they also are memento mori," Doughty said. "They're reminding us that we, too, will die." 

As a practicing mortician, Doughty's become familiar with death. She's likely consumed (albeit unwittingly) the ashes from the bodies she cremated.

"It can get in strange places," Doughty said. "And it's disconcerting, but it's also kind of an interesting connection to reality and the fact that death is around us all the time."

Off-Ramp Archive: Walk through the cemetery with Caitlin Doughty

A traumatic brush with death during childhood — seeing a toddler fall from a walkway at a shopping mall — led Doughty to develop obsessive compulsive tendencies.

"I had a weird relationship with death," Doughty said. "I developed all kinds of OCD behaviors, thinking I could control death. Which didn't work, of course."

Doughty eventually moved past the experience, but her interest in death lingered.

"When I started to work at the crematory, I was really trying to be an anthropologist," Doughty explained. "I was really trying to go in there and see what the real people working with real death right now in America looked like."

I brought up how businesses like Forest Lawn and Vitas, in their radio ads, encourage people to "start the conversation." Doughty responds, "They are using something that, in reality, is very important — the idea that a lot of people die without having advance directives in place, without people knowing what their family member who's dying really wants."

The way Doughty sees it, having a plan is an essential part of grieving. "People say, 'Oh, don't worry about me... my body doesn't mean anything,'" she said. "And that's fine. But the family can often want something tangible to do and be a part of. They don't want you to say it doesn't matter, 'cause they're left behind. They have to mourn."

Doughty directly address this thought in her book:

"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."

When Doughty's cat died, she applied the same philosophy.

"We buried her in Topanga in a natural grave," Doughty said. "It was practicing what I would preach for humans — with my cat. And I have to say that it's been months now since she's died and I feel pretty good. I feel sorrow and I miss her but I feel like I did right by her."

Doughty prefers this natural route over embalming.

"All the body wants to do biologically is decompose," she explained. "Once you die, it's, 'Let me out here! I'm ready to shoot my atoms back into the universe!'"

Don't expect a similar sort of transcendence to occur come Halloween.

"It's gotten more and more American, I would argue, as the years have gone on," Doughty said. "To the point that we say our true engagement with death is Halloween just shows how broken our relationship with death in America is."

With the advent of modern medicine, people lost touch with the reality of death. "You had to be much more accepting of death as something that's going to happen, because it happened so much more frequently," Doughty said. "Now you have people who are 40, 50, 60 who have been to one funeral."

Naturally, Doughty has given some thought to her own death.

"Right now, if I died in the next 10 years, I would like to be naturally buried," Doughty said. "If it's made legal, I would love to be consumed by animals. I would like to be able to give my own body back to the cycle."

Caitlin Doughty will appear at the Santa Monica Public Library Nov. 25 as part of her book tour. Visit the Order of the Good Death for more information on her work.

With contributions from Alana Rinicella

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