Death is one of those things we don't think about much, until someone we know is dying. But Caitlin Doughty wants to change that. She's a licensed mortician in Los Angeles, and she's taken on a lofty goal: to make death a part of Americans' daily culture. She's using her blog and YouTube channel to help spread the message. Off-Ramp contributor Avishay Artsy caught up with her.
Doughty has provided an outlet for people to ask questions, and its popularity shows that people are curious to learn about something they often avoid. She's on her fifth YouTube episode, with each video getting tens of thousands of views. She said she gets all sorts of questions.
"Everything from really, really basic things – what is embalming, how do you cremate a body — to really interesting, weird, you know – if the zombie apocalypse happens tomorrow, what is the rate of decomposing bodies, or can you tattoo a corpse. The more ridiculous, the better," Doughty noted.
Perhaps it's the cheesy music and video effects or her comedic, truthful responses that make the subject more palatable to her viewers. But Doughty's own comfort with death came with time. Her interest was sparked by a traumatic death she witnessed when she was only eight or nine years old.
"I saw a girl fall from a balcony at my local mall and hit the ground – tremendous screams – it was a real, real turning point in my life," she said. "It was quite a psychological thing for me for quite awhile, and I think part of my interest in death might just be a way to figure it out."
Doughty took her fascination with her through college. After studying medieval history left her unsatisfied, she got a job as a crematory operator, earned a degree in mortuary science at Cypress College in Orange County and now works as a licensed funeral director in L.A.
On a visit to Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, Doughty detailed one of the more hidden features of L.A.'s oldest cemetery.
"Every year, Los Angeles County cremates roughly about 1,600 indigent dead, so homeless, people who can’t afford to pay for a funeral," she explained. "They cremate them and they bury them in a mass grave here."
The burial place is surrounded by barbed wire fencing and flat ground markers that show the year each group was cremated. "It's not like 'Come one, come all, to see the indigent dead.' It's probably not something they're particularly proud of," Doughty added.
While the thought of thousands being buried together may seem morbid, Doughty gets philosophical. "We try so hard in our lives to keep control over our body, and control over individual selves, that the idea of just having everybody in a big pile is kind of strangely appealing," she said.
Her plan is to run her own funeral home, where the dead are buried naturally. Families could even help prepare the body. This runs opposite from the status quo, where bodies are chemically treated in various ways, placed in a big casket and locked in a concrete and metal vault to keep the body from decomposing. Doughty said she prefers natural burials.
"It's just body, dirt, ground, decomposition, done-zo. Two or three weeks, just a skeleton left," she said. "It’s what bodies are meant to do. It’s bodies in their natural state.”