‘Something I’m Always Trying to Do Is Get You to Hang Out With Dead Bodies’


“I will never get tired of saying that the dead body is not dangerous — unless Mom had Ebola,” says Caitlin Doughty, the mortician and self-described death activist and “funeral industry rabble-rouser” whose new book, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death,” enters the nonfiction list this week at No. 8.

As she says on an episode of her podcast, “Ask a Mortician,” “Something I’m always trying to do is get you to hang out with dead bodies — specifically, the dead bodies of people that you love.” Her nonprofit, the Order of the Good Death, provides resources that help people “accept and engage death. Everything from human composting, water cremation, taking care of your own dead, low-cost funerals — if you want to learn about it, we’re here.”

The questions from kids in “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” are refreshingly to the point: Can dead people poop? Why do bodies turn colors as they decompose? “Kids are way more blunt” than grown-ups, Doughty says. “But let’s be honest, most adults don’t know the basic facts about decomposition or the inner workings of a cremation machine, or what happens if someone dies next to you on the plane.” She loves answering questions about “post-mortem possibilities — keeping Dad’s skull, giving Grandma a Viking funeral, swallowing popcorn before a cremation.” (Can you keep your dad’s skull? Probably not: As she explained recently in The Atlantic, “I frankly have no idea what equipment a proper decapitation requires,” adding that at funeral homes, “there is no ‘cut off the head, de-flesh it, preserve the skull and then cremate the rest of the body’ option.”)

Doughty didn’t set out to be a mortician, but in college, “as a medieval history major, I was fascinated by death ritual, and the very different attitude humans in the Western world once had toward proximity to the dead,” she explains. So, at 23, she took a job at a crematory in Oakland.

“I didn’t believe it would be my life’s work,” Doughty says now, “more an interesting story to tell at a cocktail party 30 years down the road. ‘Darling, did you know Caitlin was a crematory operator?’ But I didn’t realize how fascinated I would be with what was happening behind the scenes at a funeral home. I didn’t know about things like the cremulator, the large blender that turns the cremated bones to ashes, or the spiked eyecaps used to keep eyelids in place during a viewing. I didn’t realize how useful it would make me feel to share this knowledge with others.”

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