Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty on the Death Industry’s Dirty Secrets

September 08, 2014

Point of Inquiry welcomes Caitlin Doughty, creator of the cult classic web series Ask A Mortician, which gives unvarnished answers to questions about dead bodies and the death industry. Caitlin has tackled topics ranging from “What to say to a grieving person?” to “How could my titanium hip implant end up as part of a road sign in the Midwest?

Caitlin is the author of the new book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory, the story of her stint as a crematory operator in Los Angeles. She went on to become a licensed mortician to launch a one-woman crusade to change our culture’s attitudes about death.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, September 8th, 2014. Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production at the Center for Inquiry. My guest today is Caitlin Dody, creator of the cult classic web series Ask a Mortician, which gives unvarnished answers to questions about dead bodies and the death industry. Caitlin has tackled topics ranging from what to say to a grieving person to how your titanium hip implant might end up as part of a road sign in the Midwest. Caitlin is a licensed mortician and a founder of the Order of the Good Death. She’s the author of the new book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory, the story of her stint as a crematory operator in Los Angeles. She went on to become a licensed mortician and launch a one woman crusade to change our culture’s attitudes about death. Caitlyn, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for having me. I’m a huge fan of Ask a Mortician. I’ve seen all the episodes. It’s just totally changed my view of mortician’s because I tend to have a pretty negative view of them. But it’s so refreshing to have someone who’s honest and funny about these kinds of questions. How did you get so interested in death? 

Well, that’s a good question. It’s always. You never know whether it’s, you know, nature versus nurture. As to why why you’re like this. But I’ve always had I think when I was younger, my interest in death was not quite as healthy as it was now. 

I was a little bit obsessive compulsive. I always was really terrified that my mother had been in a horrible accident and lying on the side of a highway somewhere. 

I had a lot of real big fears and I think that’s because I grew up in a culture which is American culture that doesn’t have a good dialog, especially with its children, about how to talk about mortality and the very real fact that we’re all going to die. 

And so when I realized that I’ve been working very hard for many years to figure out how to have a healthier relationship with that, and a lot of it is just exposure over a period of time when you’re in a culture that doesn’t see dead bodies and doesn’t interact with death in the way that humans have for thousands of years, you’re going to run into some some awkwardness and some problem. 

Did you have a religious upbringing? I did not. I had I mean, I was vaguely religious. I was my parents. I was baptized. Interestingly enough, kind of a fun fact for people who know me now. But I was my dad was Presbyterian and my mother was sort of Catholic, but we never went to church. 

And I did, interestingly enough, though, go to an Episcopalian high school, which my parents were hoping word was going to get some religion into me, but it didn’t take unfortunately for them. 

So you don’t currently consider yourself religious? 

No, no. I would go. I’m probably about as a religious as they come. 

So you don’t believe in any kind of an afterlife or anything like that? 

I do not. I believe that we might. My perception of after death in all of this, watching that obviously nobody has any idea is that probably it’s akin to like an old timey film reel as it flaps off the end and you get kind of that white, you know, flapping at the end. That’s kind of how I feel. I just kind of go into nothingness. Your brain swells to go against the dying of the light and you see the white light and you don’t die. Dewpoint light doesn’t guide you to something else. The white light is just kind of it and fade to black. And that’s it. Which brings me a lot of comfort. And when I tell people that sometimes they are really horrified. And they say, how can you believe that? That sounds dreadful. And for me, that’s infinitely more comforting than any other option. 

So basically, all of it from your perspective as a mortician, as a death activist, all of that. Whenever we do around, death is for the well-being of the living. 

Yes, yes and no, I think that if you’re a living person who is dying, knowing, even if you don’t believe in any kind of afterlife or any kind of continuing soul, they still think that it can be really comforting to know that the thing that you want done with your body is going to be done. For example, I am a very passionate advocate for natural or green burial, which is just your body’s straight back into the earth and your atoms being able to to go back from whence they came. And the idea of being super preserved or involved in being in a coffin underground, even though I know very well that I won’t be there, still makes me kind of escape doubt and uncomfortable. And knowing that my family is going to is going to naturally bury me and let me decompose brings me a lot of comfort, even though I know I won’t be there when it happens. 

Can you give us a sense of the basic range of options that we as pre-date Americans have in terms of what happens to our bodies when we die? 

Sure. In in America, there are fairly limited. When you look at the difficult position, which is basically what word for body disposal and what that means, the options that you have are basically cremation, burial or scientific donation. So when you die, your body can be cremated. It can be buried in a cemetery, whether it’s a natural cemetery or a more traditional from a fairy, or it can be donated to either a medical school or scientific research of some kind. And what’s interesting is that as there becomes new, interesting options, for example, alkaline hydrolysis, which is dissolving the body in lye as opposed to dissolving it with flames as a traditional cremation. Some states are allowing that to fall under the rubric of cremation. So instead of you know, it’s kind of how you can fly these new body disposal in under the radar saying, well, it’s a form of cremation, just not the plane. So interesting that people who are trying to create new ways of traditions around death and new ways of disposing of bodies can kind of fall into the traditional system to make it work. 

Why would somebody choose chemical dissolution over cremation? 

A couple of reasons. I saw a really excellent talk by a gentleman named Jason Bradshaw who began one of these with the first funeral home to have this optioning available in Minnesota. And I think actually one of the first in the United States. And what he found it first of all, it’s it’s tangibly a much greener option. And I know that green is kind of a buzz word, but it really is. You know, why? And water does all that high temperature but dissolve the body. And you’re really left with kind of like an organically come post at the end that you can bury under a tree. But it doesn’t use the same natural gases as creation and it doesn’t release mercury into the atmosphere like cremation does. And also what he found is that a lot of people truly don’t like the idea of. Even though they want to be cremated because they see it as symbol and easier and cleaner. They don’t like the idea of those flames. If you give them the idea of cremation by water as opposed to cremation by fire, they tend to take that option. 

I find the option of flames somewhat exhilarating, but I’ve always been sort of a pyro. 

Well, I guess the thing is that like that, you really should be the same way. I’m comforted by decompositions. You’re comforted by, you know, the healing and transformative power of flame. And that’s a really good thing because it means you’re thinking about mortality. It means that you’re thinking about this thing that like maybe death a little more comfortable for you. 

We used to do all of our own sort of body processing and more true rituals at home in America. When and how did that change? 

It really changes. There’s a couple of reasons. The first one would be medicalization in general, the rise of the hospital, the rise of taking dying out of the home journal. Nobody used to die in the home as well as being prepared in the home. So when you take the body out of the home to die, you’re not necessarily going to bring it back home for the week. The second reason would be the rise of the undertaker and the mortician that things became more specialized after the civil war. Early, early 20th century, it really became, you know, hey, we can we can pay somebody to take the body away. And they’re professionals and they evolved now, which means they do this sort of secret chemical procedure which preserves the body and protects the public health. And none of that is necessarily true. But it’s sort of the way that they absorb it and all of these things combined. We took the body out of the home and out of the family’s hands and got us to the place we are today. 

What is embalming exactly and why? Why do we really do it? 

Embalming? Is it a chemical preservation procedure? What it does is it removes all of the blood. The circulatory system remain didn’t have the artery pumps in a chemical formula with formaldehyde often, which is probably what you associate with embalming is formaldehyde and it’s the proteins. So decomposition is actually radically slowed down. 

And the reason we started doing it is actually during the Civil War to get the soldiers from the north, back up north from the dying on the southern battlefields because they were going up on trains and they were decomposing and train conductors weren’t having it. And the families wanted to think about any one last time. 

So they paid somebody to on the battlefield to actually inject the bodies with some sort of chemical formula, sometimes eviscerating them and putting sawdust in the body, anything they could do to preserve the body and get them back up north after the civil war. It could have just died out. But what happened is that these people who had been making money during the civil war are doing it, really sort of ran with it and made it this idea, you know, well, you have to sanitize the body. The dead body is dangerous when in reality, very, very rarely did a dead body dangerous to to a family, especially if they just died at home. So it’s really at this point, you know, the billion dollar American funeral industry is largely on embalming. So there’s a lot of resources dedicated to making sure that embalming is a part of the tradition in America, even though very infrequently done in other places around the world where people are paying for embalming. 

What do they think they’re paying for? I mean, are they envisioning the person’s body not decomposing in the grave ever? 

I think that a lot of things that they envision there definitely is the selling point of a grandmother who is dressed that her nice dress and she there’s no casket in this vault below ground and she’s not decomposing. We’re not letting grandma being beat by the worms at all. She’s going, you know, she’s going to be protected, which is also kind of, I think, a negative mental pattern to be in to try to keep us away from me in that way. Also, they’re selling the idea of sanitation that somehow this dead body is going to be dangerous and that you shouldn’t have a wake for a viewing of the body without doing this because it might somehow hurt your family, which is, as I said, in most cases, not true. But the thing that’s interesting to note and to remember is that it’s not like all of the funeral directors know this and are trying to scam people by suggesting embalming. They told us this in mortuary school. A lot of the funeral directors I know believe this because it’s what they were taught. It’s what they believe to be true. So it’s not like this is a giant scam. And some places it might be. But for the most part, people who are bombers genuinely believe they’re doing something good for the public. 

So if you were to zoom a dead body, let’s say, a year after someone died, they have questions about whether the death was natural and the forensic people dug up the body. What are you going to find in an embalmed body a year after it’s been in the ground versus a non embalmed body? 

There’s so many variables as far as, you know, what was the humidity? What kind of casket were they on the ground frozen? You know, there’s all sorts of variables. But for the most part, after a year, the outside the skin, this is pretty intact. 

And what happens over a period of time is that the body becomes an almost mummy, like the skin preserves itself. But but it kind of decomposes from the inside. And it also depends on on the kind of embalming job, you know, the embalmer put in did one injection versus, you know, five injections is throughout the body to really just preserve the heck out of it. 

So it really depends. But from what I’ve seen, it tends to sort of look like the way you would look at it, a desiccated mummy. 

And what was an unembalmed corpse looked like under the same conditions on unembalmed corpse would be long gone. 

Long, long gone. It would be it would be bones, but probably not dust yet. Also, it also depends on whether or not you put an unborn corpse in a field casket or if you just put them in a shroud. Straight into the ground, if you put them straight into the ground, that can take only 28 days. Some conditions to go completely in decomposition and into into those. 

What is the deal with Casket’s? 

What do you get? That’s a good question. 

This is definitely another thing that the funeral industry did you see that the main sources of income. And it makes sense in a way, because to run the whole funeral home, to run, you know, to have a physical disability and all the people working there and the lights on and the guarding impeccably tended to do you need to have a pretty high overhead. 

And one of the ways to maintain that overhead and pay for it is to have a really high markup on casket. 

And that’s why you run it. And so there’s a place in the south where monks are manufacturing can lead, would be in coffin. And there really, you know, who can argue with Monks’ creating handmade wooden coffins? 

And the answer is the funeral industry, because they have an Etsy store store, you know. 

And they’re not that I know of, although somebody should suggest that to them. They have to have these huge markups on these caskets to make the money that they need to make. So, you know, they want to tell you the grand sales rose numberi caskets for ten thousand dollars at a five thousand dollar markup would be their ideal. 

How much of a markup is there on a straight cremation job? 

Oh, that’s a good question. It depends on the city. I would say this is impossible for the state to say that the cremation is, for my understanding, the natural gas used and the. 

The manpower it takes to hire people to do it and to file all the death certificates and forms, I would say really the profit on a low cost cremation is really only in the range of maybe 150, 200 dollars. 

Out of a nine hundred dollar price tag to the consumer here. 

Yeah. Anywhere from. Yes. I mean, some place some cities where there’s a lot of commission. Go as low as fixity in some places. And then you have huge funeral homes that can charge twenty five hundred dollars for division. 

If somebody has an open casket funeral and then wants to be cremated, what happens to the casket afterwards? 

It has to be creamy. If you can’t use that. You can’t reuse a casket. 

No. One thing that people often do is have something called a regular casket. And what Leslie Tasket is is a kind of a casket they have around in the funeral home. 

And the reason that you can use it is because it’s specially designed to slide the cardboard cremation container into it. So the body is never actually directly in contact with the casket. Can you kind of put know some sheets artfully around it? But it only only charged, you know, 100 bucks or whatever to have the rental casket. 

Do people know that that option exists? This is like the first time I’ve ever heard of the idea of a rental casket. 

So people do and some people don’t. I mean, for the crematory that I work at, a viewing with no casket or the rental casket was actually preferable, because when you work in what’s called direct creation, which is that really you’re going more on volume rather than each individual service costing a lot of money, it really doesn’t benefit. 

You could settle a big fancy casket and bring it in and then take the extra, you know, maybe hour it takes to create a full casket and use the gas it use the time and all that. 

It really is just as good for you to do the rental casket. Definitely ask for it. If creation is something you’re interested in and you’d like a casket, but you don’t want to have a whole huge, expensive couple thousand dollar casket that then get burned with the body. Definitely quite. They should have it. 

And anywhere you go in the book, you talk a lot about death, denial and how it’s fueled by. Are sort of insulation from the process of handling dead bodies. What do you say to people who say, well, you know, I’m a secular person, I have no illusions about the reality of my own death. But I am just happy to have no contact with dead bodies of anyone I’m emotionally attached to. I’m happy to outsource that. 

Yeah. Interestingly enough, I’ve had a lot of people in the secular community give me kind of a party line answer of, you know what, I don’t feel, you know, there’s a soul. I don’t believe there’s anything left in that body. So I really I really accepted that. And I found out that death is not really that big a deal. And I don’t need to be involved. I actually don’t believe that that’s true. I don’t think I think if you really, really face the reality of your death and the death of everyone you involved, you really have this sort of like Leighann Lord quivering before the void, respect for that after that experience and people who deny that death is a big deal. I don’t know if they’ve really faced death in the way that they think they have. 

In my own I mean, in the book, you talk about webs of significance in webs of value. And I feel like secularists have webs, too. And it’s like our death rituals. So I speak for the whole secular community. But the sort of very standard secular, not present at your own funeral kind of vibe reflects our commitment symbolically to the idea that a person is their brain. And it maybe symbolically you shouldn’t fuss too much over a dead body that the person is gone. And that was what was final in the end. 

Yeah. And I understand that. And I’m certainly not trying to tell somebody to change their beliefs on anything. And if you’ve really thought about that and that’s what you really feel, that’s fine. But I would argue that being around a dead body before you in so many ways that aren’t because you’re shepherding the four out of the body and have nothing to do with the dead person. Exactly. 

Do you think you have to be around dead bodies of people that you are attached to? I mean, I’ve seen dead people as a reporter and I’ve been to bring cuttings and dissections and things like that. As a student. And I felt that those were really profound experiences. Do you think that it’s important to handle dead bodies of people you know as well? 

Yes, more so even I would say, because what you’re doing is, first of all, you’re seeing that person change over the course of the hour. You’re with them two hours for two days that you’re with them. You’re seeing typically change and you’re coming to grips with the reality that this person is a part of your framework anymore. And is it part of your community? And looking at them, you also get to realize that you yourself are going to die and you yourself are going to be this body on the table or on the bed. Maybe there are some ways that you’re living that aren’t necessarily the best for you or the best for society. And I don’t know if you can really get a better wake up call that all the mental why than an actual physical dead body. 

You’re really skeptical of plug and play cremation, where you just click a link online and sort of pension your credit card info. But it seems sort of perfect to me that nobody can up sell you on anything and you just get. You do get to outsource all of that messy stuff. I mean, it seems like in developed countries we outsource a lot of other things that we don’t want to deal with, like. Know aspects of birth, childbirth, aspects of child care, aspects of cooking, aspects of all kinds of things, and it seems like as long as you pay professionals fairly to do that skilled and important work, that should be a benefit that’s available to you in a developed country. 

Yes, it is. And there’s nothing that I’m going to say that’s going to make it unavailable. There’s nothing that I’m going to say that’s going to stop direct creation from growing in popularity. That’s going to stop people from continuing to outsource as they see fit and for it to be available. All that I’m suggesting is that I believe that it’s much better and healthier for a person to be much more involved in their own mortality and the mortality of the people that they love. And I mean, involved with the process as well as the actual physical body. And a lot of people feel similarly to how I do, but don’t realize that that’s legal and the public option and that they can take death into their own hands. They don’t have to outsource it. They don’t just have to give it away. I’m not trying to stop that from happening. It’s going to continue happening no matter how much I hem and haw. But just funny people who do feel the same way that I do know that they have a lot more power and a lot more options to take locality into their own hands than they probably believe they do. 

Do you worry, though, that if more hands on death became a social norm, that would just outsource a lot of emotionally draining and unpaid care work on to women? I mean, in principle, it’s great to have all these choices, but it seems like men are not going to be lining up to wipe the poop off corpses. It’s going to devolve to women. And if it becomes the standard, then it’s going to become the expectation. Is that something that you’re all concerned about, concerned is not the right word? 

I think I’m excited about would be the right word. And I don’t know. I mean, I know that that we used to be more in charge of death. Death was the thing that happened in the home. And the home was considered the purview of women. Women were in charge of the dead body, largely in America prior to a certain time. And then when it became a business, it really was men’s purview. All of a sudden, because when there was money being made off with it, it became a thing that men did in the movement to bring death back into the home. There is a lot. It is largely women at this point, although there is and there are men involved as well. But I think that as gender norms are changing, really anybody who is invested in in caretaking is going to be going to be the one who does it. And I don’t know. I don’t I really I think where we disagree is that I really don’t see death care and taking care of the dead body as a burden. And I see it as an honor and I see it as something that somebody shouldn’t maybe want to do, not only for themselves, but for their family and for the community and for the dead person, even though we know they’re not there to appreciate it. 

If this is somebody is mis moved to want this to happen for themselves, is that something that they should try and negotiate or discuss with with their relatives? I mean, it seems it could be really difficult conversation to have. Like, hey, honey, would you mind washing my body at home? 

Yeah. It is a difficult conversation. But what I’ve found is that so often families want to do very much what the person wanted. 

You know, if the person wanted to be cremated, say they want to be able to do that, people when somebody dies, people want something to do. And if you if you were the estranged, mean, crazy old uncle that nobody like. Yeah. They’ll probably have a direct position because you were not the nicest guy in life then. 

You know that that’s your own burden to bear, I suppose. But if you were somebody who who has a family or has a community of some sort. People want something to do. They want to feel empowered. They want to feel like they’re doing what you want them to have done and giving them things like that to do. It can actually be a real gift that you’re giving them to say, hey, I want to be cremated, and then my ashes scattered in this particular place, or I want you to keep my body at home for a day and drink, you know, showers and gin and tonics around my body and then sing song, you know, whatever it is that you give them to do. They might very well you probably will feel like it’s a it’s a gift that you’re giving them because they can feel like they’re doing something to honor you that you would have wanted. 

If somebody wants to do that right now, I mean, irrespective of the option of hand that they want, have a home wake and a home burial, what are their legal options in terms of doing that right now? 

The problem is, is that. Each state has its own set of laws. So I believe that right now there are eight or nine states that have that require a view or is one of them. California is not. 

That requires some manner of funeral director involvement in the home and home weeks and home home death care. And so you there’s a really good Web site called the Funeral Consumers Alliance. 

Some people to it, but frankly, you might be very aware of already. But there are consumer advocates group that does a great job of breaking down the laws in every state. So that’s a really good resource for figuring out what to do in your state and how much power you have. Literally in California, where I live and practice, there’s a lot of freedom for a family to to be in charge of dead body and not have to go through that. 

Could they even bury the body at home on their own land if they own the land and see that that’s state by state to California? 

In that sense, is actually not good for that. But places like Texas really are. And you’re in a much better position if you have a much bigger piece of land and if you can sort of prove that you you own it is that in some states are much better about it than others. So that’s another thing that you have to go through your county doing now. 

Good luck clearing it with the homeowners association. 

And again, it depends, you know, if you live in a suburb, you know, then then it becomes like, you know, if you have that third kid two years later and you need a bigger house, that grandpa’s buried in the backyard. But you do. 

Oh, Kaitlin, thank you so much for coming on the program. It’s been an eye opening discussion and a real pleasure. 

Yeah. Thank you so much for the work that you do. And I appreciate having you. 

This has been a point of inquiry, you can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry. Tune in next week. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.