This week’s issue of The New Yorker features a lengthy profile by Rebecca Mead on the rise of female morticians, with a special focus on Ask a Mortician’s Caitlin Doughty (whose work has been featured on Jezebel several times). The article—like much of Doughty’s work—got me thinking a lot about what I want to have happen to my own body once I’m dead and gone. So now I pose the same question to you: What’s your death plan?
Reading Doughty’s memoir—Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory—considerably changed my thoughts on death. Up until recently, I’d always assumed that I, like almost every dead person I’ve known, would be cremated, my ashes then distributed to loved ones to be scattered somewhere beautiful or washed down the sink (depending on how they feel about me at the time). The cleanest, least traumatic body disposal always seemed like the best body disposal—though Doughty argues otherwise.
In The New Yorker, Mead summarizes Doughty’s philosophy and approach to the death industry thusly:
After graduating from the University of Chicago, [Doughty] worked for about two years at Pacific Interment, a mortuary and crematory in an industrial district of Oakland. Without ceremony, she processed corpses through preparation and incineration. This work changed her vision of the ideal funeral practice. “When I first thought I wanted to get into the industry, I thought people needed a more friendly death—for death to be more accessible,” Doughty told me. “That changed very quickly. Now I think people need to get closer to it. It should be up in your face, not ‘Let’s turn Mom into a diamond.’ ”
Her new funeral parlor has a blunt name: Undertaking L.A. Along with Amber Carvaly, her business partner, Doughty intends to help people take care of their own dead, rather than outsource the task to professionals. “When I found myself in all these big industrial warehouses, alone with all these bodies, I thought, If I’m doing all this, there are all these other people who aren’t doing this,” Doughty said. “That’s too much death for one person and not enough for all those other people.” Among the services offered by the fledgling company are help with home funerals, in which the body is bathed and dressed, then kept on ice for a few days, while the family grieves; natural burials, without casket or marker, at a green burial ground in Joshua Tree; and witness cremations, which permit family members to help load the body into the cremation machine and push the button that starts the fire.
It’s only in the past 100 years that death has become an invisible thing—a process that mourners are almost entirely left out of. For some, this might be a good thing, but Doughty feels that engaging with death will both help you better mourn your loved one and accept your own mortality by placing the realities of death directly in front of you. It’s grim, sure, but her method is also full of hope.
In 1863, Louisa May Alcott, who served as a nurse during the Civil War, wrote of an encounter with the body of a soldier whom she had tended until death. “The lovely expression which so often beautifies dead faces, soon replaced the marks of pain,” Alcott wrote. “I longed for those who loved him best to see him when half an hour’s acquaintance with Death had made them friends.”
Doughty’s perception of death echoes Alcott’s. Keeping that in mind while conducting my own morbid research, I developed a new death plan.
First and foremost, my mourners are charged with solving the mystery of my murder (answer: I was poisoned by my much younger husband who killed me to gain access to the enormous wealth that I’ll acquire later in life). Secondly and sincerely, I want my loved ones to do whatever’s best for them. If that means, having me cremated, fine. If that means throwing me in a mass grave, all the better. I will be dead and will not care. But if it’s the case that what they want is to carry out my own wishes, here they are: I want a green burial. No embalming, no coffin—just bury me in a forest and let my body be absorbed back into the Earth.
These details feel both grim and highly intimate to share, but there they are. It’s Monday, folks, so why not talk about our inevitable deaths?
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