How Mortician Caitlin Doughty Traveled the World on the Wings of Death

Images via W.W. Norton/Caitlin Doughty
Images via W.W. Norton/Caitlin Doughty

For most Americans, the options of what you can have done to your body after you die likely seem limited. Cremation, embalming your body and then burying it—there are variations on those themes, but the basics remain. But mortician Caitlin Doughty has spent her life trying to change how we consider death and educate us about the ways we can care for our dead.

Doughty’s first book, the New York Times bestseller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematorium went far towards that goal. Part memoir, part history of the death industry, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was, for me and others I know, revelatory, pulling the wool back from over our eyes with regards to our understanding of why we make the choices we make about our own deaths, and how we want to experience the deaths of our loved ones. The book was a natural progression for Doughty, who gained popularity through her YouTube series “Ask a Mortician,” the videos of which have been regularly featured on Jezebel. She has also founded the Order of the Good Death, “a death acceptance collective,” and now owns her own funeral home in Los Angeles, Undertaking LA.

Doughty’s new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, goes a step further than her first one (and has also become a Times bestseller to boot). In it, she travels around the world, to Crestone, Colorado to witness the use of a funeral pyre organized by the Crestone End-of-Life Project; to Mexico to visit the Mummies of Guanajuato; to South Sulawesi, Indonesia, where families live with the dead bodies of their relatives for years, all the while attempting to explore how different cultures handle death.


“I feel like coming back to Jezebel is like my ancestral home, because Dodai is really the one who first started sharing my videos and that’s where attention to my work first came from,” Doughty kindly told me when we spoke on the phone earlier this week. “Jezebel is a very important part of the beginning of the movement and the beginning of me as the death girl.” (Our pleasure!) What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, in which we talked about how she chose where to visit for the book, the responsibility we have to make death “good” for as many people as possible, and how it’s women who are changing our societal understanding of death.

JEZEBEL: You write in the introduction that, “One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death. Why do we refuse to have these conversations, asking our family and friends what they want done with their body when they die? Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put both our pocketbooks and our ability to mourn at risk.” You obviously talk about that a lot in your first book, but I assume you wanted to flesh that idea out more in this one. Would you say that’s accurate?

CAITLIN DOUGHTY: I’d say that’s accurate. And I’d also say that there was this consistent thing that was happening whenever I talked about either different death rituals around the world or new death rituals that I wanted to introduce into America, this response of, ‘oh, but that’s so disgusting.’ Or, ‘That’s really disrespectful.’ Or, ‘Just let the poor person rest in peace.’ And my reaction to that was, okay, you have a really narrow idea of what respectful is and what is possible, and maybe if I went more into depth and explained why these different cultures did the things that they do with the dead body, it would be easier for you to access that understanding and easier for you to access the humanity in these death rituals.

It’s interesting because we live in such a globalized culture but what I think you lay out really well is sometimes it’s globalized in one direction; people are really aware of what Americans do but Americans are not particularly aware of what other cultures do, or even what people are doing within our own borders.


Exactly. Being in rural Indonesia—and it’s just about rural a place as you can get in the world, up in the mountains—and these people are pulling their dead loved ones out of the grave and they’re redressing them, they’re posing with the mummified family member, and then someone goes, ‘Come over and get in the picture for Instagram!’ They want me to pose with them in this family portrait with a mummy that’s going to go up on Instagram. So those influences are so clearly there and they’ve taken in all of these Western and technological influences even in these really rural areas. But most of America has absolutely no idea who these people are and what they do with their dead and why they do the things they do with their dead.

So when you were conceiving of the book, why did you pick these certain cultures? What kind of research did you do to pare that list down? I’m sure you could have gone to any number of places that you didn’t end up talking about.


Yeah, there are 195 countries [in the world]. I could have just kept writing this book for the rest of my life and gone through all those places. The places that I ended up picking, the phrase that I’m using is “respectful access.” So a place that I could go where, because I knew someone, it would be a story that a typical journalist or tourist wouldn’t have access to or wouldn’t be able to get. And then also because I knew someone, they would be able to introduce me and say what I was doing there and make sure that I was okay, so I wasn’t walking in as this big six foot tall white girl, being like, ‘oh, I heard your dad died, that sucks, tell me more.’ So it was about places that I knew had this very interesting, unique story that most people would not have heard, and then combine that with having some connection to it, where I knew I wouldn’t be boorish or inappropriate by showing up.

The scene that really sticks out is when you talk about traveling to Indonesia and you talk about the tourists that are visiting there, which just seems like such an ethical and moral quandary. It’s obviously one that journalists deal with all the time when they’re reporting on loved ones who have died, but this is such an extreme version of that in so many ways. Even if you have done all this research, as you succinctly point out, you get there and you still don’t know what they would consider appropriate.


Yeah! There’s so much stuff going on. On one hand you have this culture that’s actually really proud of their death rituals, and they want tourists both from Indonesia and from overseas to celebrate and engage with these death rituals, and to make money, and rightly so. But then you also have these tourists who are just walking through and sticking their iPads in children’s faces at a funeral, and trying to get up close to the casket, and just being what I would consider pretty inappropriate. But then you also have the layer of, in their home country, a lot of them were from Germany and the Netherlands, they don’t have as good of access to death and dying and the death and dying process as these people in Indonesia do, and they’re really missing it and they want more but how much do we give them? So there’s just so many things going on there and I think that makes for really fascinating anthropology and cultural engagement, to try and tease them all out.

When you talk about respectful access, and when you were thinking about places you’d want to go, did it start with thinking, who do I know where? How do you even conceive of starting a project of this scale?


I think that it happened pretty organically. I would tell people what I was working on, and [chuckles] this always happens; people will say, have you heard of the mushroom burial suits? Or, have you heard of this guy who photographs jeweled skeletons? And the answer is always like, yes, there are like 12 of us who do this. [Laughs] The alternative death industry is such a small world in many ways that everybody knows everybody else. So being able to go to a body farm and see these experiments being done with composting a dead body, that’s just my friend Katrina. Or being able to go to Indonesia and see this very specialized ritual with the mummified dead, that’s my friend Paul who’s been there many times in his career and knows the guide and knows the people. So it’s just knowing the people that I know in this incredibly tight-knit community and having them be very very generous with introducing me and bringing me along.

Along those lines, your last book was clearly more memoir than this book, but I think what was so great about it was that you do this nice job of weaving it in with the history of the death industry at large while making it personal. This book is obviously less memoir, so how did you think about that balance, when you’re thinking about, what role do I play in telling other people’s stories?


That’s something that most people don’t ask about but it was something that was really hard. The first book really was, I’m 22! And I’m surrounded by corpses for the first time! What am I gonna do! [Laughs] And this one I wanted to have more of a nonfiction tone to it, more of a journalistic tone to it. I don’t know; on one hand, I didn’t want to lose the Caitlin voice, especially because I knew a lot of people would be disappointed if that wasn’t there. And no matter what I did, people were gonna go, ‘I liked Smoke Gets in Your Eyes better!’ I could have written the great American nonfiction classic of all time and people would still say, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was really my favorite.


So I was expecting that, but my main concern was still putting in my friendly traveler narrator voice without making it about me as much. Because there was a lot more originally in the book that was just me ruminating on being a white girl visiting these places and a lot more just navel-gazing about how I felt about death tourism and how I felt about these different rituals. And my editor, rightly so, was just like, we gotta cut a lot of this out. People are interested in you but they aren’t interested in this level of...they’re more interested in the stories and the information then they are your inner dialogue on some these issues. I think it’s important that this one is more about other people’s stories than mine necessarily. And maybe I’ll do another book where it’s back on me, but this just seemed like the better choice.

And you clearly interject yourself at points where there’s tension or a necessity to. Like when you talk about going to Spain [to visit the Altima funeral home], and your funny but slightly tense relationships with the people you meet there is a nice acknowledgment of the fact that yeah, you’re traveling around the world and you’re trying to be open minded and you’re trying to learn all these things but these are very intense emotional choices people make and feel passionate about, and obviously you’re not going to always agree on them.


Yeah! The closer you get to America or places very similar to America, obviously the easier it is for me to push back. And so I’ll lay into the American funeral industry until the cows come home because I am a funeral director who owns a funeral home in the American funeral system. And I feel like it’s very fair for me to criticize it and to speak to the issues that we have. And then you get to Canada and the UK, I still feel pretty confident in making those assessments. You go to someplace like Spain and I still have some leg to stand on, but then you get further and further away from the Westernized view of death and then I have to take a backseat as an observer and try to explain it in context because it’s no longer my world and so I feel like it’s no longer my place to rail against it. Because I’m not coming from a place where I can ever fully understand it or participate in it.

There’s so much information in this, and I’m sure you probably had way more that you had to cut out. I know for the last book you said to keep track of your memories, you used this secret blog that you had kept; how did you go forth with doing this? Did you take notes, did you record? What was your process like?


Yeah, I was mostly just carrying around a recorder to get everything, but of course that creates hours and hours and hours of tape. And then I had a reporter, Rebecca Mead from The New Yorker, come follow me around in my funeral home for a profile. She never used a recorder—she did every once in a while, but mostly she just learned to know what she wanted, and when somebody said something that she knew would be really useful, she would then write it down in shorthand. And I was like, oh, that’s right, you’re a professional and if you’re not doing an interview, you don’t need 47 hours of audio of this. So from then on I tried to go more in that direction. And also by that time, later in the process, I knew what I was looking for, I knew the kind of story—hopefully—that I was trying to tell with each place that I was going. So I turned more to writing things down then recording. But yeah, I still have so much recording and notebooks and things like that. [Laughs]

You’re obviously deeply informed about this topic; at least from the outside, it seems like it’s, if not your whole life, a very large percentage of it. When you were learning for this book, was there anything that really surprised you or shook you?


I don’t know if there was any moment of shock. It was nice to know that I could still be so delighted by things. It was nice to see that there was still such a sense of wonder. Like when I went to the corpse hotel in Japan and just thought about how it could be used in America, it was really exciting. And before I went to the corpse hotel, I didn’t really even totally know what it was because there wasn’t really anything online that explained what it was. I knew that it was a thing that was popping up in Japan and that they were going to let me come and tour it behind the scenes with the guy that ran it, but I didn’t know what to expect. And then to be there and see how the family member could come at any time of the day and see the dead bodies and sit with it and not have the pressure of, oh you’re at a wake, let’s pat mom’s embalmed hand and move down the line. But that you could just sit and relax with the dead body anytime you wanted, it was like, ah, that’s amazing, that’s perfect, we need one, I want a corpse hotel! And I was really genuinely excited.

You’re right, I do death so much, I’m so involved with death every day of my life that sometimes...I’m not burned out but I’m just not as thrilled about everything anymore? And then to go to these different places, it reignited my excitement about what is possible in the funeral industry and the kind of innovations that we can make to move us forward and to have death be, not more fun, but have our funeral homes better equipped to handle people’s actual emotional needs.


Obviously there’s a few components in your interest in this topic—financial, environmental, emotional. In recent years, I’ve seen an increase in coverage of what end of life care could mean, what it looks like, the increasing burden that it has on our society. And then also when someone does die, how little people are prepared to handle even the logistical aspect of what that is. I’m wondering how much of your interest in making funerals and that process more cost effective is related to being so intimately familiar with how many stresses there are at the end of someone’s life for their family and friends that won’t ever go away, that are impossible to escape from.

Yeah. I have a colleague named Chanel Reynolds and she put this really really beautifully, and that is, when someone dies, there is optional suffering and there is non-optional suffering. And the non-optional suffering, I might not ever really be able to help you with. Death is always going to be...if your mom dies or your partner dies, it’s always going to be this incredibly difficult, existentially painful experience. And I’m not trying to remove the non-optional suffering from death. But I’m trying to remove all of the optional suffering from death. We bring so much suffering onto families that’s unnecessary, whether it’s through the logistics, whether it’s through a funeral system that doesn’t do a great job of supporting people or really explaining their options or making sure things are the most cost-effective and simplest possible. And so I think that is the biggest thing is discovering for you, before someone dies, what are some of the optional suffering that you can remove from their plate? But it takes two people to tango with this; it has to be the funeral industry that reforms, so when people come to the funeral industry, they’re better equipped to help them, but it also has to be people stepping up and saying, yeah I’m terrified of death, but I realize it’s really going to suck if I haven’t thought about it at all or planned anything at all before I died.


There’s a lot of talk recently about the term “the good death” and how we can be promoting the good death when there’s so much bad death in the world. Whether it’s mass shooting, earthquakes, trans deaths, these terrible terrible deaths that aren’t good at all. And what I’ve come to believe about this is, first of all, we can’t shut down the idea of the good death, because even though there are bad deaths, our work is to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the good death, especially people who are faced with the bad death right now. How can we help those groups specifically and create that? And the other thing is that, the deal with the good death is that I’m not saying everyone is going to get this magical, hippie-dippie, crystals and shrouds death slipping into the next world. But if you don’t plan at all and you don’t have these conversations at all, I can guarantee you you won’t have a good death. A good death culture will not come to you, you’re not going to fall into it, it will not come to you unless you do this planning, unless you have these conversations.

Something that your work has brought up for me was, after my dad died, he chose to be cremated, and we had kind of talked about it but only in the vaguest sense. I knew that funeral homes would pump you full of poison and pretend that you looked a certain way and put you under ground, and I knew that I didn’t want that, and so I had this conception that being cremated was the best way, you give yourself back to the land, etc. But then reading your books I realized, oh, cremations are incredibly environmentally straining. And I wonder now if my dad would have chosen differently if he had known that or if he did know that and didn’t care. You must get lots of stories from people that are like, I read your work and now am reconsidering what I want to do at the end of my life.


Yeah, absolutely. I mean the amount of times that I hear ‘I want a natural burial now!’ is daily. And it’s happening with me but it’s also happening just in the zeitgeist far beyond me. People are thinking about ways of dying that reflect them and their lives. So the people that we do natural burials for at our funeral home, if you drove a Prius and you donate to the Sierra Club for 50 years, it doesn’t make sense for you to be filled with chemicals and put with steel and concrete underground, that just doesn’t fit the person you were. And if you were someone who was this great world traveler, maybe a cremation and scattering you in various places all over the world absolutely fits with who you are. The natural gas that goes into a cremation is two full tanks of an SUV or a 500 mile car trip. It’s a lot of natural gas, but I’ve taken an SUV on a road trip. It’s not like I’m biking everywhere, I’m not above this. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t cremate, or that just because something is not the perfect environmentally pure method that you shouldn’t use it by any means. If it works for you and the idea of fire is meaningful to you or the idea of having the ashes to do something with is meaningful to you, you should by all means do it, but I think, we hear this with embalming a lot, they do it and they have no idea what it is. The funeral homes tell them they have to do it and they have no idea what it is.

So I think with all of this it’s not saying, don’t do this! It’s more, do you know what this is? Do you know what the impacts are? Is this really for you? And if it is, if someone says, I want to be embalmed—this doesn’t happen very often—but every once in while someone will say, I want to be embalmed and I know exactly what it is and I want it for this and this reason. And it’s like, great. Good for you, you figured it out and you know what I want, that’s what I want you to do. I just find, most people, when they actually find out these things, they might make a different choice.


Your work also has made me reconsider how much of the idea of cremation and my long embrace of it has been wrapped up in this fear of the dead body that you talk about a lot. I remember vividly after my dad died my mom asking whether I wanted to see his body and her saying that he didn’t look like himself, so that maybe I didn’t want to. And I chose very quickly not to. And I don’t regret that, but it’s interesting to me how quickly I was just like, ‘this is the decision I’m making’ and I didn’t consider it. That there was no dialogue in my own brain about, ‘why did I do that?’ What was the fear there? That he didn’t look “himself.” Yeah, he wasn’t anymore; he’s dead.

Yeah, if he looked exactly like himself that would be a problem. If he was moving around and smiling, that would be its own issue.


Right. So it’s this idea—and everyone feels differently—but that you want to hold your last memories of someone as the way that you knew them your whole life, which is nice and I’m sure works for many people, but at the same time, it means that you’re sort of not embracing their new state of being, right?

Right, I am of the belief that there is something incredibly powerful in the idea of ritual and transition. And I don’t mean that in the spiritual sense because I am a pretty secular person, but I mean it in the sense of transitioning from, in your case, someone with a father, to someone without a father, and what that transition means. Not that you didn’t have a father anymore, but a living father anymore.


No I get it! [Laughs]


But what does that journey mean to a person? And what I worry is that most people don’t know that it’s possible to—say your dad died at hospice, or in the hospital, they don’t know that you can just plant down and sit there and watch the little changes happen and watch how still he is and watch his temperature start to go down and just realize that this is a transition, that this person who was your father and that you knew your entire life is no longer a part of your world and no longer part of your community. And to question that and interrogate that and to make that transition and to know what that means for you. And I’m not saying you have to do that, but people don’t know that that’s a possibility and that can be incredibly valuable to them. And you know what, he’ll start to look very dead, and that is the point—he is dead. He’s a dead person now, he’s not coming back, it’s not a video game, no one is bouncing back here. There’s evidence, there’s tangible evidence in the form of his dead body, that something has transitioned and something has changed.

When I was talking to my colleagues in advance of this interview, they were saying they felt, and were wondering if you felt, that there is a slow, greater comfort with death coming out in our culture in broader ways. Like the rise of true crime in pop culture, or the rise of Trump-era existentialism about the end of the world, or the widespread interest in that study that came out last week about how the mind has consciousness even after the body is dead. I’m just wondering if you feel like there’s an awakening happening and it’s manifesting in different ways.


Absolutely, that’s not a stretch at all. And what’s interesting about all of this is that I largely see it being driven by women and self-identified women. And I think that there are really clear reasons for that. I think that women are the ones who bleed every month, who bring children into the world that will ultimately die, they bring death into the world and they want to be more aware of what it means to go out of the world. And women were also the ones who took care of the dead bodies in America for hundreds of years, until this male-run industry started in the early 20th century that took all of the deaths out of the home and into “professionalized” hands.

And so when you think about these dialogues that are happening among your coworkers, among people who are really interested in true crime, who are really interested in existentialism after Trump, I think it’s this portion of the population who are waking up and going, ‘wait a second, this is so rich. Death is so rich. It’s about anthropology, it’s about culture, it’s about gender, it’s about art, it’s about all of these profound things, and I’ve kind of been kept from it my whole life. And now that everything feels so dire, maybe I want to have a closer connection to this and learn more about it, and learn more about my own mortality and what will happen to my body and what that means for me.’


It’s hard to call anything in the Trump era an exciting time, but I will say that the election of Trump has made our whole movement much more explicitly about social justice, and much more explicitly about the bad death, and what we can be doing to bring all of these different groups in to work with us, to talk about the future of death. And it’s been a pretty rich exciting time for me, as much as it feels like everything else is a dumpster fire. This feels like a really exciting conversation to be having right now.

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Googly Eyed Plush Toy

It’s funny. I was just thinking the other day that in some ways we’re losing touch with mortality. This was specifically in regards to the gizmodo article about DIY immunotherapy and everyone in that article was just focused on extending life without thinking about the inevitable. And how there’s this whole toxic culture of “Alternative medicine” that peddles this idea that if you do the right thing and say the right thing and feel the right thing then you’re gonna be healed forever.

I’d love to see us having real informed conversations about death and dying and demystifying the options like palliative care and hospice that still have the stench of defeat around them. We need to move away from this idea that dying is a failure and that you’re letting people down if you succumb.

I’ve been fortunate that my grandparents were able to discuss this stuff and be clear about their decisions before they died. In three out of four cases they died as they wished. (One had dementia and choices were taken from them although we tried to honor their decisions as much as possible.) It’s a depressing topic, but I’m glad I know my families choices when the time comes. Don’t assume people will “just know” what you want. Write it down, talk to your family and friends, designate decision makers before it’s too late.