For the past several years, Caitlin Doughty's delightful "Ask a Mortician" YouTube series has addressed everything from viking funerals to modern embalming practices to the corpse flower (AKA amorphophallus titanum, which is Latin for "giant, formless penis").
The self-described "funeral industry rabble-rouser" runs a nonprofit funeral home in Los Angeles and, in 2011, founded the Order of the Good Death—a collective of funeral-industry professionals, artists, and academics who are dedicated to "exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality." United by the belief that engaging with death reflects a "a natural curiosity about the human condition" and that avoiding the topic only makes it scarier, members of the Order are spearheading the "death positive" movement.
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With "Ask a Mortician" and her 2014 New York Times bestseller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Doughty destigmatizes discussions of death, challenges the hegemony of America's commercial funeral industry, and advocates for the reform of impersonal (and expensive) modern death-care practices. Though her jokes about exploding caskets and skin slippage might be too intense for the squeamish, to me, Doughty's chipper demeanor and ridiculous anecdotes highlight the humor and absurdity of our mortal coil.
In her second book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death—which is, as of today, available in paperback—Doughty explores death and grieving customs from rural Colorado to the Tana Toraja region of Indonesia. With openness, humor, and empathy, she deconstructs the idea that dead bodies are dangerous and shows that there isn't one "right" way to mourn and care for the dead—there's dignity in every culture's burial practices, whether they involve leaving corpses to be consumed by vultures or encasing them in glass coffins or cremating them on an open-air pyre with fragrant juniper branches.
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Throughout From Here to Eternity, Doughty offers a very specific (and complicated) perspective as a white Western woman visiting primarily non-white communities around the world. But it's important to note that her narratives don't center the American experience, and when she does examine it, it's to illustrate how broken our system is when it comes to coping with mortality—especially compared to cultures that are more hands-on with their dead.
There's never going to be a convenient or comfortable time to think about death, but, as Doughty told NPR in 2014, "The Grim Reaper has his hand up all our butts. He's puppetting all of us because everything that we do, every project we undertake, child we have, building we build is because we know we are going to die. It's the main driving force of our lives. If we ignore our death, we end up just going around completely oblivious to why we do the things we do."