In the 1987 film Moonstruck, Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis), frustrated by the discovery of her husband’s extramarital affair, spends the whole movie asking one question: “Why do men chase women?” Finally, her daughter’s soon-to be-ex–fiancé replies, “Maybe because he fears death.” “That’s it!” she replies. Now, whether that’s accurate is still up for debate; what is true, though, is that the fear of death permeates nearly every aspect of our waking lives—and often, even our dreams. The knowledge that death is just out there, waiting and inevitable, often manifests in taboos, inhibitions, and questions cloistered at the back of our brains. The more we think about it, the more it can fester. In the United States, death is hard to talk about; it’s arguably even harder to ask other people questions about.
Caitlin Doughty knows as much about death as there is to know: She’s a mortician; the New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (2015) and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death (2017); and the host of the wildly popular YouTube channel Ask a Mortician. In her latest book, Will My Cat Eat my Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, Doughty—the founder of the Order of the Good Death, an organization that I work with part-time—tackles the questions that many of us have stewing in the back of our minds.
Do our hair and nails keep growing after we die? (They do not; your skin dehydrates, giving the illusion that they do). Will your cat really eat your corpse while your dog will leave your remains alone? (Actually, they’ll both snack on you, but for different reasons). Can I have a Viking funeral? (No, setting fire to your body will not completely incinerate, it and your charred carcass will likely wash up on shore for some unsuspecting beachgoer to find.) I chatted with Doughty about the difference between a fear of death and thanatophobia, the phenomenon of a “death awakening,” and how the stigma and taboo surrounding death is similar to that of other marginalized issues like sex and reproductive health.
I’ve always believed that dogs are better than cats because a cat will eat your dead body while a dog won’t. But I learned in your book that that’s not necessarily true: A cat will eat you because it’s hungry, a dog will eat you because it’s panicked. Is this definitive proof that dogs are better than cats?
As an introvert, the type of dependence and anxiety that a dog has in connection to you is a little much for me—I have so many dog-owning friends who say, “I can’t leave my dog alone for more than a few hours.” Cats’’ fierce independence and the fact that you can go out for the whole damn day and a cat is chilled at home, works better for me. And that’s really [reflected] in how they eat you. A cat is eating you because [it’s saying], “You haven’t fed me for a while. Time to eat.” And the dog is [saying], “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you waking up?” Nip nip nip, tug tug tug, rip rip rip, flesh flesh flesh. That’s what the dog is doing. I admire the cat for just saying, “Fuck it. Time to eat you. You didn’t fulfill your responsibility. I gotta do this for me right now.”
All the questions you answer in this new book are from children. Why do you think children ask better questions about death?
In our culture, we take very seriously the idea of a child’s sexual awakening, but we don’t take very seriously a child’s death awakening. Both are incredibly profound, fundamental parts of young personhood. At a certain point, when you’re about 7 or 8, you come to the very harsh conclusion that you and everyone you love is eventually going to die and not pop back up like Bugs Bunny, [or] become a fun zombie, or ride off into the sunset and be reanimated. That’s an incredibly existential thing to put on a small child.
But there’s no way around it, so when you have children who are still young enough to ask guileless, pure, blunt questions combined with this profound existential awakening of their own mortality, what but good can come of that? What [else] but interesting thoughts can come from that? What so often happens [though] is that a parent will say, “Don’t ask that. That’s morbid. That’s weird.”
It doesn’t work to tell a kid, “Don’t think about that.” All that does is put [death] in their mind as something terrifying. Ten-year-old [children] can absolutely read [the book]; teenagers can read it with no problem. It’s not for really young kids, but it uses these kids’ questions as a way for adults who first had [these questions] when they were children to open a space for their inner child and their inner morbidity.
Can you talk a little bit about the difference between deathphobia and a normative fear of death?
Not being afraid of death isn’t the goal. I can’t help you not be afraid of death; that’s above my pay grade. But the reason that I do the work I do is because I reached a point where I knew everything I could know. I also don’t have a fundamental thrum of fear around the physicality of death: what’s going to happen to my body, what’s going to happen at a funeral home, what’s going to happen to my family, [whether] my paperwork is going to be done. I’ve taken care of all of that. Removing that really helps because a lot of what you might be afraid of is something you can take care of [now]. Dying is so hard, grieving is so hard, and the existential fear of death is so hard, [so] for me, there’s a real comfort in the corpse and caring for the corpse.
The first time I became somewhat comfortable with death was in fourth grade, when we studied how the Ancient Egyptians cared for their dead.
[Ancient] Egyptians are a lot of people’s gateway into this conversation. For elementary-school teachers who want to get their students comfortable with this early on, [if] you’re doing an Egyptian unit, you can ask questions that aren’t threatening or horrible. Like: “Has anybody been to a funeral? What do [funeral rituals] look like in America? Do you think the Egyptians were afraid of death?” You can ask these questions without being like, Look upon this corpse, child!
In the book, you write that your body relaxes for four hours after you die. That was comforting to read. I literally felt my body relax at the mere thought of that.
Many people have the [idea] that the dead body immediately starts decomposing in rigor mortis: Your hands are gnarled, you’re belching blood. But one of the profound benefits of staying with a body after death is being face to face with this person no [longer] suffering. [There’s] no heavy breathing, death rattle, or eyes flickering in their head. [They’re] totally relaxed, totally still. A stillness can be incredibly comforting after someone [went] through a lot, especially if you were a caretaker. That’s okay, even if you just feel good about the burden being released from you.
I write a lot about sexual health, abortion, and infertility. All of these things are stigmatized and yet so incredibly common. Death is similar—we’re deeply obsessed with it, but no one talks about it. What really struck me as I was reading your book was that children seem to latch on to how many times a day we think about death.
People are more comfortable now or feel [more] compelled to talk about their abortions as a political act and [to say] You have to reckon with this. We have #ShoutYourAbortion and other hashtags, but what do we have for the almost ubiquitous fact of miscarriages or early termination of pregnancy? With a miscarriage there’s somehow this mystical thing that you’ve done wrong, especially in this current [wellness culture]. You didn’t use the right vaginal creams. You didn’t clench your yoni egg enough times, so your baby is now a blighted ovum. The wellness-industrial complex is coming for the idea that somehow you were not woman enough and whole enough to carry a baby to term, which is obviously disgusting. But that is absolutely connected to our fear of natural death.
This might be controversial, but with sexual violence, sexual assault, abortion, [and other traumas], there’s almost a sensationalism to it that we find in true crime, zombies, or the horror of the news cycle. We are almost attracted to the horror side of death, whereas we just don’t want to hear at all about a natural death or a miscarriage. [It creates an] almost silent stigma.
We live in a time of increasingly fake news. Can you talk about the connection between misinformation surrounding death and our larger problem with the dissemination of bad information?
I never get tired of saying things like, “The corpse is not dangerous. You are far more empowered than you think you are at the time of death. You are not required to embalm a dead body in any state [in the United States].” These are things that show up again and again. It’s not only Trump supporters [who] think these things about death; everybody in your life probably has [some] misinformation. In many ways, [being misinformed about death] should make people angry. There’s not a specific person to blame, because the funeral industry is so entrenched [in] the early 20th century. The men who started this are long gone, and men—mostly men—[are] continuing it in a way that’s not acceptable. They continue to spread misinformation in ways that are not acceptable.
It is somewhat surprising to me that nobody feels angry [about being misinformed] until somebody dies. At the point when they really need information [because] a funeral home lies to them about it being legally required to embalm a body, the bill comes out to $10,000, or they are told things that [are] untrue about what they can do at the funeral, then they’re [rightfully] furious and [unfortunately] powerless. It is very similar to what we are finding in this era where we don’t think something is [ever] going to affect us, and we only get into a cycle of outrage when it actually happens.
How does the availability of green burials, alternative burials, and home wakes help contextualize the ways that marginalization impact death care?
Part of my job is to give families the lowest-cost blank slate I can that empowers them to bring their culture, their needs, and their desires into it. Some families that we serve care a whole lot about the environmental aspect of it and some don’t. Some people care a whole lot about the cost and some people don’t. Some people care a whole lot about personalizing [the service] and some people don’t. But everyone [should be] getting [the proper information about funerals], regardless of [their] beliefs or desires.
We have what we call a low-impact viewing with families, where the body is not embalmed but it’s still prepared. There’s no big, heavy casket, but there’s a simple cardboard cremation container draped with white sheets and flowers. The family is involved in some way; maybe they write letters to the person and tuck them under their hands prior to the cremation. They can value or not value any individual part of that or any individual idea behind that. An immigrant family called me the other day. The mom died and left behind two pretty young boys, and their GoFundMe was for $25,000 because that’s what the funeral home [told them the cost for a service] would be. It would never occur to me to [tell] that 18-year-old boy, “You know you can have this [funeral] for $2,000!” Because of course they don’t.
Younger people, in general, are getting angrier at the fact that [in] a country that’s incredibly diverse with incredibly diverse needs, everyone [is being] slotted into $10,000 cookie-cutter funerals. It’s unnecessary and a dark spot in our basic mandate to honor everyone’s religion and cultural traditions. It’s important for families to feel autonomous and empowered in [planning a funeral] because if [the deceased was] a marginalized person, autonomy and power has been [routinely] taken from them. And it’s quite possible that the way that the person died [also] rendered them powerless because it was violent: a Black woman died in childbirth or a trans person [was killed]. [There are a] number of reasons that they were denied a good death or a death that they had control and autonomy over.
When you take that away from [that person’s family], you are retraumatizing them. When [a person] has a bad death, giving the family full autonomy around the body, the burial, cremation, or what happens to the person’s [body] can start to crack the surface of healing. If you allow them to shroud, weep, and engage, that can start a little sense of healing.