Last year, after my mother-in-law passed away, I happened upon a YouTube video entitled “What happens when you’re cremated?” I wasn’t trying to be morbid, I promise. I just like learning new things and, hey, here was a new thing that was exactly what we were going through.
Aside from the information, the video’s hostess, Caitlin Doughty, was great. I started looking around her channel, called Ask a Mortician, and watched more of her videos. You know what I learned? A lot! (For instance, did you know that embalming is not required by law before burial? Did you know there is a “green” version of cremation that uses water instead of fire?)
But what I mostly learned, was that despite having planned 3 funerals/wakes/Celebrations of Lives in the last 12 years, I knew very little about what actually happens to a corpse from the time it arrives at the funeral home to the time it is interred or buried. The industry is designed that way–to sell you the embalming/cremation/burial packages and to shield you from your vast multitude of options. Many of these options are less expensive, more eco-friendly, simpler, and give the grieving family a way to intimately participate. That shielding is not doing us any favors.
So, we the living, advocate for the deceased. But who advocates for the living? Enter Caitlin Doughty, who has made it her mission to pull back the curtain of the funeral industry and give us a look inside. As. It. Should. Be.
In her first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, we see the author’s foray into the funeral industry as a lowly crematory operator in San Francisco. It’s far from glamorous, but she learns a lot in those few months and we learn right along with her. After that, it’s mortuary school and pretty much being on call 24/7 while driving the “body van” up and down I-5, boomeranging between San Diego and Santa Barbara.
As you probably guessed, this is not a subject for the squeamish, but it’s important. Death is something none of us will avoid. It discriminates against no one. And right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are probably thinking about death more than usual. So learn about it. Make a plan so that your family isn’t left guessing. Learn from the good and bad decisions of others. Reading this book is a very entertaining and informative way to start. You’ll be amazed at how much you don’t know, but you’ll also revel in Doughty’s writing style, which is witty, a bit sardonic, but respectful of her vocation.
Caitlin Doughty has written two more books, both of which I plan to read and review in the future. She also owns her own funeral home in Los Angeles, runs a website called The Order of the Good Death, and, of course, her YouTube channel, Ask a Mortician.
Here’s a little intro:
The Order of the Good Death website (designed to provide education and transparency about the funeral process.)