Ask a Mortician: Putting the Fun in Funeral

It might sound horribly morbid, but I am filled with curiosity about funerals and the ways that we choose to remember and memorialise our dead. I haven’t quite started carefully crafting a Pinterest board filled with coffins and shrouds and suitably mournful bouquets, but my funeral and the arrangements surrounding my death are something I frequently think about. Despite this macabre fascination and several marathon viewings of the HBO show Six Feet Under, until recently I knew very little about the particulars of the death industry — that is until my journey through the internet had me cross paths with Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel, Ask a Mortician.

Caitlin is a mortician who owns an alternative funeral home and founded a death positive collective called The  Order of the Good Death. She also makes videos on the internet. In these videos, she’ll educate you about iconic corpses, the funeral industry and death practices around the world whilst advocating for people to be more positive and accepting towards death. She presents all this information, which ranges from gruesome to absolutely vital, with characteristic winning dry humour.

In a video entitled Death & Feminism, Caitlin quips that death and decay is the great equaliser.

“Death itself is actually pretty feminist, because when you die you rot and decompose and turn in to a pile of unidentifiable bones which is actually a pretty equal system.”

She goes on to explain that the funeral industry however lacks the egalitarianism of death itself.

“The death industry on the other hand not so feminist […] When a man takes care of a corpse he is a professional, he gets paid to do it, and when a woman takes care of a corpse it’s a domestic task […] she does it for free. But […] that is beginning to change in a major way. In 2010 only 18% of funeral directors were women but in 2015 almost 60% of mortuary school graduates are women, which means we are churning out new female funeral directors at a really high rate, many of which come from within this death positive community. […] The fact is funeral directing is now a job that women are being paid to do and that in itself is a feminist act.”

Caitlin’s videos are funny and informative, but they are also an essential resource for anybody who has found themselves in the sudden unfortunate position of having to organise a funeral. She explains what to ask for and how to access the most affordable death care options, breaks down jargon and busts the misconceptions surrounding funerals. Caitlin is informed and willing to advocate for the needs of mourning people over that which would enable the funeral industry to make maximum profit.

In one video she explains why embalming bodies isn’t always the best option despite it often being presented as the one size fits all standard for funerals…

“[Embalming] is presented as the default, costing the family a lot of money when they have no idea, […] that they have any other choice but to accept this being done to their love one’s body. […] I promote natural death and natural burial because I want society to return  to an appreciation for decomposition. […] Embalming is the antithesis of that. It’s asking society to value stopping time and stopping decay, with the bonus of being down with cancer causing chemicals! […] I don’t wanna treat these things as two equal options. […]

I will stop putting down embalming when two things happen. One, the average consumer, a grieving person, can go into a funeral home and not be made to believe that embalming is required by law. And two, that same person is not made to believe that the body is unviewable or otherwise  dangerous without embalming. Right now, my two conditions are not being met. Time and again, families will come out of a funeral arrangement, believing those two things to be true. Sometimes it’s an unscrupulous funeral director, but more often than not, it’s a funeral director who believe those things to be true, even though they’re not.”

Death is inevitable, and for many people just admitting to that reality is horribly frightening. Coming to terms with death and accepting its impossibility to evade is  vitally important, it’s easy to understand why there are movements to encourage sex positivity and body positivity but death positivity is a far harder pill for most people to swallow. Caitlin’s videos will entertain you, answer your questions about if your nails really will keep growing after you die but they will also help grow to accept and embrace your own mortality and inevitable decay. Which is a learning curve that is just as essential as it is morbid.

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