Death becomes her: Meet the very modern mortician who champions 'cool' funerals

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Ever considered baking a loved one's remains into a cake or putting their ashes in fireworks? If so, talk to Caitlin Doughty, champion of the alternative death industry.

Before we begin our interview, I ask Caitlin Doughty to take me somewhere meaningful: a place that she loves, or to which she has some deep spiritual or biographical connection. It's a sunny day, like a lot of days in Los Angeles, and so she drives us both the few blocks from her home to Angelus Rosedale, the biggest, greenest open space in the non-descript neighbourhood known as Mid-City. Bees buzz nearby as we stroll across the impeccably kempt grass.

Doughty tells me it's one of her favourite places to walk, to think, to picnic with friends. "There's nowhere else this quiet, beautiful and lovely in the neighbourhood," she says, and I have to agree. One small thing, though: the Angelus Rosedale is a cemetery. And Doughty, a 28-year-old with a fashionable haircut who appears to be entirely sane, is a mortician.

In fact, she may be a lot more sane than you or me, because she has spent much of her life wrestling with a topic that the rest of us do our level best to ignore: death. The Rosedale Cemetery, she explains with the giddiness of a geek, was founded in 1884 and three years later became home to only the second crematorium in the US. Several early LA mayors were interred here. As the first cemetery in the city to accept the corpses of all races and creeds, the Rosedale also boasts the burial plots of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar (for Gone With the Wind), and Dooley Wilson, who played Sam in Casablanca.

California has a particular significance in the modern history of death. In 1963, Golden State resident Jessica Mitford published her seminal exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. That same year, the Catholic Church approved cremation as an acceptable form of body disposal, and Southern California quickly became the capital of what Doughty describes as "the direct cremation revolution". Today, Northern California is at the heart of the "alternative death industry", which advocates eco-friendly, coffin-free home burials.

Los Angeles, then, seemed a logical location for the young mortician to make her mark. Few funeral directors appear on Yelp, and even fewer have their own websites. But in 2011, Doughty founded the Order of the Good Death (orderofthegooddeath.com), an online collective committed to returning death to contemporary American life. The name comes from a 19th-century group of African slaves in Brazil, Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte ('Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death'). The Order's mission was to cut through the death anxiety of modern secular culture, and help people to consider their mortality anew.

"In America," says Doughty, "burial means an embalmed body in a heavy-duty casket with a vault built over it, so that the ground doesn't settle. That body is encased in many layers of denial. Engaging with the corpse is good for us, mentally and emotionally. A hundred years ago, everybody kept bodies in their homes for a few days after death. But the corpse has been taken out of our culture, and that's to the detriment of our relationship with death."

The project took off after Doughtyf began a YouTube series called 'Ask a Mortician', in which she answers questions about death and dead bodies. Championed by the irreverent women's blog Jezebel, the series soon attracted tens of thousands of hits, and a substantial audience for Doughty's discussions of whether corpses defecate (they do, sometimes); when to talk to children about death (early/often); and how to liquify a corpse (alkaline hydrolysis). One questioner asked if they could bake a loved one's cremated remains into a chocolate cake. Yes, but it wouldn't be strictly legal…

The Order now has members from across the developed world, including film-makers, musicians, poets, artists, writers, and an Australian fashion designer who creates customised, decomposing burial garments. "They tend to be the only people in their social circle doing innovative things with death," says Doughty, "so they're pretty happy to hook up with the Order. There's a whole world of things we can do with the dead body that we could never explore before, because of religious and cultural proscriptions. In this new global, increasingly secular society, we have a chance to say, 'Let's do something cool and interesting, let's re-examine these traditions and see what we come up with'. The Order of the Good Death is intended to bring that conversation to the public."

In California, the legal options for disposing of a loved one's body are rather pedestrian – burial, cremation, scientific donation – so innovation in the corpse field is limited. "People make urns shaped like golf clubs, or put ashes in fireworks. That's kinda cool," says Doughty, "but it's not fundamental change. I don't think people realise how limitless our engagement with death could be. Because of my hair and complexion people often say I look like Snow White. So could I, like Snow White, be put in a glass coffin to decompose? I'd love for that to be my gift to science and humanity: for people to walk by my increasingly decomposed body over the course of a couple of months."

One of the Order's most qualified members is Dr John Troyer, an academic at Bath University's Centre for Death and Society, the UK's only interdisciplinary study centre dedicated to death. Troyer specialises in new technological approaches to the human corpse, and is presently at work on a project to recycle the heat energy generated by crematoria. Doughty contacted him after he set up his own death-based website, the Death Reference Desk.

"There have been groups since as far back as the 18th century who want to discuss death and dying," Troyer explains. "Sometimes the discussion is practical, sometimes philosophical, sometimes religious. But what has enabled Caitlin to do what she's doing is communication technology. In the past five years there's been a surge of individuals from across the developed world, from many different disciplines, who are finding each other and putting groups together. The interest in death was always there – but just like in any other field, the new technology has advanced the conversation."

oughty was born in Hawaii, in the same hospital as Barack Obama, and grew up yards from the Pacific in f Kane'ohe, a small town some 12 miles from Honolulu. Her mother was an estate agent; her father was a schoolteacher, but he had also spent two years in the infantry during the Vietnam War – experiences he rarely shared. "My father never talked about the death he'd seen," she says. "Every once in a while he'd tell a wacky story about Vietnam, like, 'There was a snake in my boot!'. But nothing about the terrible stuff."

She saw her first dead body at just eight years old, when she watched, transfixed, as a toddler fell from a balcony in a crowded shopping mall. The experience triggered her early fixation with mortality. "It was pretty violent," she recalls. "I had no context for it. If I'd lived 200 years ago, then people would have died around me all the time, but I didn't have that experience, so I became terrified of death." Doughty began to imagine elaborate death scenes for herself, which she would then describe in detail to her disconcerted mother.

The first of her family to die was her grandfather, who had once commanded Hawaii's Schofield military base. She was in college by the time he passed away, "but he had Alzheimer's, so he'd already tiptoed his way out of my life". More shocking were the suicides of several fellow students at the University of Chicago, where she studied medieval history and wrote her thesis, 'The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory'.

Meanwhile, she indulged her death obsession by staging so-called "macabre spectacles": student theatre adaptations of stories by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe. She would stay up late reading death theory: Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death; Philippe Arie's The Hour of Our Death; Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying. She isn't religious, but nor is she an atheist, preferring the compromise classification, "areligious". She never self-identified as a goth, she claims, but she did used to frequent goth clubs – and she listened to a lot of The Cure.

Does she consider herself morbid? "The definition of 'morbid' is an unhealthy preoccupation with death. Unfortunately, there's no word to mean the perfectly healthy preoccupation with death, which is what I have. I've worked very hard to become comfortable with how death works, and why it happens. I now know that death isn't out to get me."

After college, she took a job as a crematory operator at Pacific Interment, the same firm Mitford chose to perform her simple cremation following her death from lung cancer in 1996. Before the end of her first day, Doughty had discovered her calling, and formed in her mind the first inklings of what would later become the Order of the Good Death. A year later, she began a second degree in mortuary science.

"In mortuary school we practised embalming on the bodies of the indigent homeless dead of Los Angeles," she recalls. "One body had been registered as having been in the morgue for a month, when it had actually been there for well over a year. So when it arrived with us, it had already started to decompose in the plastic body bag. It was like a terrarium: part of it was mummified and desiccated. There was thick green mould growing everywhere, sections that were bright orange. They had us try to work on it… unsuccessfully."

Of her 50 classmates, only 11 would graduate. Many were young women, bucking the stereotype of the sombre, middle-aged male funeral director. Most were fans of Six Feet Under. Traditionally, there are few college graduates in the death industry. Most death professionals see it as a trade, not a vocation. Few engage existentially or intellectually with their work, which, claims Doughty, causes problems. "Every day in the funeral home is intense: new grief, new sadness, new violent death. Heavy things. So a lot of people in the industry have trouble with drink or drugs."

After three years working at LA's Gateway Crematorium, Doughty is now in the process of setting up her own funeral business, as a freelance death midwife. She'll consult with those close to death, and work with funeral directors to realise the funerary desires of the deceased. Just as a wedding planner guides people through the options for the biggest day of their life, so Doughty will show people the possibilities for the biggest day of their death. She's also at work on a book about her experiences in the death industry, with the working title Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Since becoming a somewhat public figure, she says, she has started to receive the mortician's equivalent of fan-mail. Some of it is heartbreaking: "I get emails saying, 'My husband committed suicide and they wouldn't let me see his body because he shot himself in the head. But I snuck in to see him because my desire was so strong. Am I a horrible, morbid person?' I reassure people that any and all reactions to death are OK." Some of it is predictably perverted: "I also get comments from guys saying things like, 'You're so creepy, but you give my penis rigor mortis'."

After our outing to the Rosedale Cemetery, we return to her apartment, which contains several taxidermy exhibits, some dead things in jars, and a collection of Victorian post-mortem photographs. "It's like a little death art museum." She has a cat, which is still alive. Remarkably, she also has a roommate. The roommate is a therapist. My final question is, I suppose, the final question. What does Doughty want done with her own corpse, after she dies? "I would like to be laid out in the desert to be torn apart by animals," she says, straight-faced. "I would like a wolf to eat my foot, and a vulture to pick at my eyeballs. I would like to be scavenged."

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