Caitlin Doughty, acclaimed author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory, wants to encourage more open discussion on a taboo subject: death and decay. In 2011, Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists exploring ways to better familiarize America’s “death phobic” society with mortality and its meaning.
Doughty, a trained mortician, spoke with Life Matters Media about her memoir, burial wishes and experiences working in a crematory.
What inspired you to write Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?
I worked in a crematory, and it was so fascinating, the things that I saw and the things that other people didn’t see, because of the way that death works right now in America. It’s a hidden culture and a culture of silence– how we deal with death. My policy is always that we’re better when we know what’s going on, when we know the facts.
What goes on behind the scenes in a crematory?
A lot of crematories now are somewhat industrial environments, because things get centralized. There’s a single point that all the bodies will go to, whether it’s a centralized embalming facility or centralized cremation facility.
It’s completely fascinating. It’s one of the most fascinating places that you can go to, especially in a world where we don’t see a lot of death. It’s new everyday. Each body is different, each case is different, each family is different.
There’s a lot of care for the body where I worked, and I certainly tried to do that. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a high volume. If you are concerned about it, ask to see the facility, ask for a witness cremation.
Are cremations considered completely natural and ‘green’?
No. The only really natural way to care for a body is just to put it straight into the ground. Dig a whole with a shovel and put the body right on in with a shroud. But cremation does use a lot of natural gas and releases mercury into the environment. The mercury comes from dental fillings.
Are ‘green’ burials becoming more common?
They absolutely are. I think it’s both environmental and a sense of “why am I cutting myself off from the earth? Why am I putting myself in a casket and then in a steel vault?” It’s also a cost issue.
How do you wish to be buried?
I would like to be naturally buried. Eventually, I would love to be left out for animals, but that’s not legal right now. I already have my cemetery picked out in Marin in California. Straight in the ground, please.
Why do you wish to be eaten by wild animals?
I think that metaphorically, it works very well for me. The idea of going back into the life cycle in a very basic way. Have it be fair play. I eat animals now, and I think that they should get to eat me, because I am an animal, too.
Why do you believe end of life discussions are taboo?
At a certain point in the early 20th century, both dying, the process of dying, and death itself, the dead body, got taken out of the home and given to professionals. Since that time, the cultural inheritance that we have is “don’t talk about death. It’s for the professionals, not for you.
Are you surprised by the positive reactions to your book?
The book has done pretty well, which shows that there is a market for it. People want to know about their death, they want to know the facts and be more comfortable with it.