Death Becomes HerCaitlin Doughty Traveled the World to Find the Best Death Rituals

Thinking about death isn’t as bad as it seems. Since Caitlin Doughty founded the Order of the Good Death in 2010 and introduced us to death positivity, a movement that helps us accept our mortality and work toward establishing death rights—and rites—for everyone, more people are giving their final moments some much-needed attention.

Doughty, owner of nonprofit funeral home Undertaking LA and author of the New York Times bestselling book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, has spent the last three years exploring death rituals around the globe. Her new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, is a tale of how different cultures honor their dead and the manifold shapes grief takes, person to person, family to family. It’s also a primer for reevaluating our own attitudes toward death.

Shortly after Death Salon Seattle, a conference attended by funeral industry professionals, academics, policy-makers, artists, and the death-curious, Doughty chatted with Bitch about From Here to Eternity, women’s involvement in the death positive movement, and our need for death rituals.

You’ve said that the destinations in the book are places the average tourist wouldn’t have access to. How did you decide where to travel? 

It really comes down to access. This book was written over a period of three years, and in those three years I worked with my colleagues and my friends to figure out places that I could go. A good colleague named Katrina Spade invited me to a human decomposition facility to see her test a new process for decomposing a human body. I’m friends with a man named Paul Koudounaris, a world traveler who has spent the last 10 plus years getting access to these very, very rural communities in rural provinces and rural countries. So I had places that I really was fascinated by that I wanted to visit, but I was also able to use my connections and friendships from our tight-knit death community to get access to places that I never would have gotten access to.

I tried to go to where I knew I had the opportunity to see something really unique and impressive, rather than saying I’m gonna go to the Ganges River in India no matter what and I’m going to stand there until someone talks to me. I also wanted to make sure that I had an introduction and would be welcomed every place that I went. I didn’t want to go somewhere where I didn’t have either a local guide or a person who had been there many times before.

Were there any places you had your heart set on that didn’t work out?

I feel like I could’ve done this book for another two years. I really would have loved to go to Africa. There’s a beautiful short documentary that that shows how intimately people in Ghana treat the body, wash the body, dance and wail. It seems like such a palpable visceral mourning that I would have loved to be a part of. They also create fantasy coffins, built in the shape of cell phones and chickens and McDonald’s hamburger boxes. I would love to go to Ghana at some point.

I would have loved to go somewhere in the Middle East to see some of those traditions. I would have loved to go to Bali, where they put the bodies in a big two-story bowl and set it on fire after carrying it through the streets. There’s so many things that I would love to go and see, but at a certain point they were like, “You can’t write this book forever. We have to wrap it up, Caitlin!” So that’s where it ended. There’s so much more that I would love to do.

Would you consider writing a sequel?

If people end up really liking this book, maybe. Paul Koudounaris, for instance, has done three gorgeous photography books around the world, each with a slightly different theme. It’s exhausting to travel around the world looking at death and grief because that travel is mixed with the hardest part part of someone’s life. But it’s also incredibly enriching and endlessly fascinating. People ask me all the time, “Aren’t you going to run out of things to talk about with death if you’re just The Death Person?” No. Death is the absolute fabric of history, culture, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy. It’s everything that we do in our lives, and being able to see how differently other cultures react to grief and mourning [is] not going to get old. If I had the opportunity to continue this work, I probably would.

You just led a talk about pets and pet aftercare at Death Salon Seattle. How do you think pets fit into the death positive movement?

I actually had someone come up to me after my talk and say “I don’t know that I totally agree with this. Do you really think that pets are as valuable as humans and are worth our mourning and our mourning practices?” I said a couple of things: First, I think it’s sort of a privileged position to be in if all of your best friends are humans. If you are a disabled person, a very elderly person, or someone who just doesn’t work well with other people, your pet is your best relationship in the world. Given that, it doesn’t hurt us in the movement to honor that and say we want you to have any kind of mourning process you need for your animal.

The second thing is that what’s possible to do with an animal body is a lot less regulated, so it allows us to experiment. It allows us to think about new mourning rituals and new processes for disposing of the body. Just like they say kids need a starter funeral with their goldfish—even if you’re an adult, it can still be a starter funeral. You can still experiment and think about what you want for the humans in your life through an animal.

Do you see death rituals as something for the dying/dead individual, or for their family, friends, and for society in general? How do we reconcile the different needs ritual serves?

I think we reconcile these sometimes conflicting needs through conversation. At first that sounds like a simple answer, but what’s happening now is that nobody has any plan at all. The dying person won’t talk about what they want their final moments to be, whether they want to die at home or in a hospital or in a nursing home, or what they want done with their body. Their family may have thoughts, but doesn’t want to pressure the person who is dying so they don’t talk about it.

So I think it starts with advocacy, conversation, and saying that each person gets a voice in what they want done with their body at death. Overall, it’s just the silence of all parties involved. You always hear stories like, “Well, mom wanted this, but her family wanted that. There was a fight.” I don’t think that’s the prevailing problem. Far more often than that, it’s the silence of all parties involved that’s the real problem.

Why do you think women are so drawn to the death positive movement?

I have a lot of opinions on this, obviously. At Death Salon, someone said to me, “I love this movement, but it makes me uncomfortable that there are so many younger women dressing in a certain way and looking kind of gothy. Are these really people working in funeral homes? Are these really people working in death?”

Yes, a lot of them do work in death and just choose to express themselves with this aesthetic on their off-time when they’re not working with families. It feels sort of shame-y to me to say, they don’t really care about death, they just want to dress up. Women want to do this work because society has so systematically kept them away from death and dying. Death used to be the purview of women. It used to be a domestic task that was done in the home. Women were the mourners. Women were the ones who took care of the bodies. They were intimately involved with these processes. And given the fact that it’s now a for-profit industry, I think women—especially younger women—are saying, “Hey, wait a second! Where’s my place here? I used to have this thread that connected me to death and the dying and now I don’t have it. How can I express my interest in the morbid truth that we all will die?”

Those aesthetics are very much a part of that.

I’d love to get your take on the white, male dominated transhumanist movement.  How do you feel about the recent online skirmish with transhumanists after the Death & The Maiden conference, which seemed to come from a misunderstanding of what death positivity means? Is this the first time these two groups have clashed?

It’s not. I know that Aubrey de Grey, one of the main leaders of the transhumanist movement or the life extension movement, really doesn’t like us and says so in publications. He has strong feelings about people who actively promote death acceptance. It’s this weird conflict where I feel very sorry for the gentlemen of the transhumanist movement, because every time they speak about death it seems so personal, real, and tragic for them. It seems like their mother died and they have never been able to get her death out of their mind, and so it is now their mission to do everything possible to extend life and keep themselves alive. And they can’t even fathom why we would want culture at large to engage with their mortality and accept their mortality.

At the same time, I can’t feel completely sorry for them because I think a lot of what they’re doing has the potential to be really damaging. As you said, a lot of the people in that movement are wealthier white men. Many of them are very open about not wanting life extension to be available to the masses. They don’t want to improve lives all over the world or improve lives that genuinely need improving. They want to live forever—that’s their top priority. So the rich are going to get richer and privilege is going to become more entrenched if we talk about a system where radical life extension is available. So I do feel sorry and I want to sit down with these guys and say, “let’s talk it out, man!” But I can’t be completely sympathetic because I think it’s potentially really dangerous.

If you could change one thing about the U.S. funeral industry, what would it be?

I think that every funeral home should be required in some way to be very, very explicit about the fact that embalming is not required. It’s not a legal issue and you do not need it to view the body. This is something that is required in most states, but in small print.

Again and again, funeral directors indicate to families that embalming is mandatory or that the body will be unviewable without the chemicals, and I would love to see there be very severe consequences if a funeral home lies to the family and says that those things are true.

What do you see as the biggest stumbling block to death positivity?

I think that what we saw at Death Salon is a great example of what our stumbling blocks are and how to move forward. The idea of the good death or the positive death is really difficult for people for a multitude of reasons, whether they’re from a marginalized community that sees a lot of very tragic deaths and thus can’t imagine a good death, or they’re just a person who’s so deeply afraid of their own mortality that they can’t imagine death ever being positive.

So I think that “positive” language is hard. But I want to stick with that language, because Chanel Reynolds—who talked about Getting Your Shit Together at Death Salon—put it so beautifully when she said there is optional suffering and non-optional suffering. I think that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do and why I believe this movement can be helpful.

Death positivity is not saying that we can get rid of your non-optional suffering because we can’t. We’re not able to overcome tragedy, grief, or death. All of these things are still going to be so real and so present. What we want to do is help you face down the suffering that is optional, and has to do with planning, completing your advance directives, and having your wishes known. [We want to help] with having in place the things you don’t want to be dealing with when someone dies, whether they’re 89 or 22. I think the stumbling block is making people realize that there is a benefit in this movement for everyone and making sure that we have all voices represented.

The funeral industry in Asia feels so innovative and accepting of the fact that technology can be meaningful. Why do you think that is? What lessons can we take from them?

Do you remember the selfies at funerals controversy? It was a couple of years ago, and I wrote a piece basically defending selfies at funerals. Not saying that everyone should take a selfie at a funeral, but saying, hey, these kids grew up with smartphones, it’s all that they know, and they document everything via their smartphone. Why wouldn’t they also document this moment via their smartphone? Can’t we talk about how maybe that it’s valid to express public mourning on Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram? I got so much backlash for that.

funeral in Asia

Photo via National Geographic

People really were like, “Well I agree with most things you say but this is a bridge too far!” And I think we’re not doing a good job of having conversations about the intersection of technology and grieving and death in America. I would love to. I hope that what that chapter about Japan does is show that technology can actually bring us closer to death and mourning. I’m of the opinion that we should still hang out with the body no matter what, and have that experience where we’re very, very close to the physical dead body, because that’s my advocacy. But beyond that, if you want to keep up your mourning and keep up your traditions through technology, that’s the world that we live in. And we should adapt to the world that we live in to make sure that everybody has access to mourning and ritual.

Something that struck me in the book was the chapter on ñatitas, and how the women “[use] their comfort with death to seize direct access to the divine.” What do you think rituals could look like if they didn’t also have to be acts of resistance?

So many people don’t get to do what they want to do with their dead because it’s such an act of resistance at this point. You have your mom die at home and you want to keep her at home, and the hospice nurse says, “Oh, no, that’s illegal. You can’t do that.” Or the coroner says, “Oh, no, the funeral home is not going to be able to let you take the body home.” That’s not true, but all of these workers have been told a certain line to tell the family and they can’t find themselves deviating from that. So if you’re a family who wants something different, often it is an act of resistance because you have to do so much more work just to make these very simple things happen.

But if it all of a sudden changed and everybody had access and could sit with their dead and have a natural burial, would it lose part of the magic? Is there something in the struggle and resistance that gives it a special magic because you’ve fought for something for your family member that society and this for-profit funeral industry didn’t want to give you? I’m willing to give it a shot. I am hopeful. I think that when more people have access to sitting with the body and new alternative methods of disposition, our overall relationship with death will improve and society will improve. Will it ever be the complete high of somebody who completely worked against the system to change things? Maybe not. But I’m really willing to give that up for more universal access for everyone.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo of Sonya Vatomsky by Nima Forghani
by Sonya Vatomsky
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Sonya Vatomsky is a queer, non-binary writer and researcher based in the PNW.

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