Caitlin Doughty has no problem talking about necrophilia on her YouTube channel. She’ll discuss whether or not a casket could explode, and reveal what’s in her purse (an orbitoclast, a tool used for performing transorbital lobotomies, naturally). She’s good at her job.
The Los Angeles mortician’s YouTube channel, Order of the Good Death, has been a go-to for death-interested parties on the Internet for a few years now. Though Doughty often talks about macabre subject matter, she has a sharp sense of humor that drives home every point, much like an orbitoclast through the frontal lobes.
Her popular Ask a Mortician series offers sound advice on topics like pet wakes and whether or not the funeral industry is a pyramid scheme, but Doughty also explores death and mortality in an attempt to make us more aware and less afraid. This balance of humor and insight can be found in her new book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory. It offers a closer look at Doughty’s professional story arc, which started at age 23, when she took at a job at a mortuary in Oakland, Calif. She also explores her childhood fear of death and is vocal about what needs to change in the funeral industry.
Take responsibility for facing your own inevitable mortality. Don’t see death as something that happens to other people.
She’s now focusing on Undertaking L.A., a project that aims to place “the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, the death itself, and the subsequent care of the dead body,” helmed by her death awareness group, Order of the Good Death. The Kernel asked Doughty a bit more about what we’re getting wrong about death, how to plan for our own, and what’s in her purse.
First screename: PunkNSkaGurl, used for Yahoo Chat rooms circa 1998. No regrets. Well, maybe some regrets.
Earliest memory of the Internet: Searching for Savage Garden pictures on AOL. Which is still pretty much my Friday night.
The Web would be better if: There were more defined laws governing the threats and harassment that can take place there.
Deceased historical figure you would have loved to see online: Mae West would have been killer on Twitter.
For the uninitiated, what does being a mortician entail these days?
Being licensed by the state to accept money to transport and prepare a dead body.
What’s the hardest question you’ve ever had to answer about death?
Where our soul goes when we die. No one has any idea, though I cast my vote for nowhere.
How has YouTube shaped what you do?
YouTube has been invaluable in getting across the message of death acceptance. I could write 40 blogs that wouldn’t have the impact that a single video does. It makes the conversation on death safer and more accessible.
Is the death acceptance revolution happening online?
It’s happening EVERYWHERE. But it is online in the sense that it makes possible projects and collaborations that never would have been possible before. I can work with a corpse-composting architect in Seattle, a pathology museum curator in London, and a medical librarian in Los Angeles all in one day.
What is the Internet getting wrong about death?
The Internet is a place for the absurd, the ridiculous, the hilarious, the sublime. Every website on death doesn’t need to be falling leaves and tree logos. People can handle a conversation on death that isn’t 100 percent serious, especially on the Internet.
I loved your “What’s In a Mortician’s Purse” segment. What’s currently residing there?
My broken dreams, gum wrappers, rabbit skull, hamburger, cellphone, fog machine.
Why has death become so taboo, and what can we do to reverse that?
Get involved. Take responsibility for the dead. Take responsibility for facing your own inevitable mortality. Don’t see death as something that happens to other people.
Was the new book a form of therapy, in a way? How much of an emotional impact does your job have on you?
It was therapy—at least my therapist saw it that way. It wasn’t the emotional impact of my job I needed to address, as I’ve been doing this for seven years and handle it relatively well. It was more the drudging up of my childhood fears of death.
What’s your plan for your death? Should everyone have one?
My plan is to be buried naturally. Straight in the ground in just a shroud. I call this, “Corpse. Ground. Hole. Dump.” Absolutely everyone should have a death plan. It will make you feel better. Promise.
Illustration by J. Longo