How to Be Better at Death (Ep. 450)
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician who would like to put herself out of business. Our corporate funeral industry, she argues, has made us forget how to offer our loved ones an authentic sendoff. Doughty is the author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory. In this installment of the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, she is interviewed by guest host Maria Konnikova.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
Stephen DUBNER: Today on the show, the latest installment of our Freakonomics Radio Book Club. I’m not very good at predicting the future, but I am predicting you’re going to love this episode. It’s guest hosted by Maria Konnikova, the New Yorker writer and author of The Biggest Bluff, which was the very first selection of our book club, last summer. That episode, if you’d like to listen back, is called “How to Make Your Own Luck”; it’s episode 424. Maria also happens to have a Ph.D. in psychology. Today she’s speaking with Caitlin Doughty about her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory. It’s a fascinating and timely discussion, and it starts right now. Here’s Maria Konnikova:
* * *
What do you say when someone dies? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really learned how to talk about death. How to think about it. What to say to someone who’s recently bereaved? Just think about the language we do use. “Passed on.” “In a better place.” “Laid to eternal rest.” How about just “died”? The discomfort runs deep. Money doesn’t lie. And our aversion to death, especially in the United States, is big business. We pay for the body to be transported, embalmed, gussied up, and cremated, or perhaps buried in expensive caskets. What used to be an intimate and essentially cost-free process, taking place at the home, has, in the last 150 years, grown into a professionalized, $20-billion-a-year funeral industry. Increasingly, funeral homes are part of larger chains and corporate entities — along with every other element of the business, from caskets to gravestones. The personal is further and further removed.
Caitlin DOUGHTY: I think most modern American people will tell you this, that you’re just not comfortable around dead bodies, which is the exact opposite of what our relationship with death was for tens of thousands of years of human history. The families took care of the dead body. The community stepped up and took care of the dead body.
That’s Caitlin Doughty. When she was 22 years old, newly graduated from the University of Chicago, she wasn’t sure what to do next. She ended up applying to work at Westwind Cremation & Burial in Oakland, California.
DOUGHTY: I didn’t know how long I would be cremating bodies for, but I thought it would be a funny cocktail party story 10 years from now. And my friends would raise their martinis and go, “Did you know Caitlin used to work at a crematory? Isn’t that wild?” But then, I got into it and I loved it. I loved the environment. I loved how strange it was that each body was different, each family was different, and that America has this completely bizarre relationship with death. That was 13 years ago. And here I still am as a funeral home owner and part of the funeral industry.
In 2014, Doughty published a book about those early years working in the funeral industry, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. In addition to its many dark and funny scenes, the book lays out her philosophy about death. Here is Doughty, reading an excerpt:
* * *
DOUGHTY: We can do our best to push death to the margins, keeping corpses behind stainless-steel doors and tucking the sick and dying in hospital rooms. So masterfully do we hide death, you would almost believe we are the first generation of immortals. But we are not. We are all going to die and we know it. As the great cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker said, “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.” The fear of death is why we build cathedrals, have children, declare war, and watch cat videos online at 3 a.m. Death drives every creative and destructive impulse we have as human beings. The closer we come to understanding it, the closer we come to understanding ourselves.
* * *
As we record this episode, death is having something of a moment. To put it mildly. Morgues have run out of space; funeral directors can’t bury and cremate fast enough. Not long ago, New York saw its first funeral director stripped of his license for mishandling the remains of Covid victims. It’s a terrifying thing to witness. For the employees, it’s draining, overwhelming work. And for the industry as a whole, it’s something of a wakeup call.
DOUGHTY: I think Covid triggered a lot of thoughts about how we don’t want to be paying $15,000 for a funeral, that we want to be close to our community and our family members when they die. Every time there’s been a mass-death event in American history, the funeral industry has seen some really profound shifts. Not that there’s something good coming out of this pandemic, but I do hope that we use the opportunity to make some much-needed reforms.
We all have to die — at least for now. But can we change the way the actual process that follows our death unfolds? Doughty has a vision: to make the whole business of death more intimate, less expensive. With a little help, we can use this moment to work towards achieving what Doughty calls “the good death.”
DOUGHTY: We’re experiencing so many bad deaths right now, and if anything, that should make us understand how precious and vital the good death is.
The good death isn’t something universal. It’s more of an overall notion of death positivity — an attitude that embraces, rather than runs away from. My idea of a good death may not be yours. And, most likely, neither one of ours is quite like Doughty’s.
DOUGHTY: My current desire is to be eaten by animals.
She also champions alternatives like natural burials, funeral pyres, and intimate ceremonies in the home. Even the funeral home itself can function as a different sort of entity than the one it’s become. Doughty co-owns and operates Clarity Funerals & Cremation in Los Angeles. Today on the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, we take Doughty back to her roots, with her 2014 debut memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. We will hear her read some of the book’s best excerpts. We will look at how the modern funeral industry functions, how our rituals of mourning have radically changed in the last 150 years, and talk about why, all things considered, getting eaten by animals might not be the worst way to go.
* * *
Maria KONNIKOVA: What made you want to apply to a job in a crematory in the first place? That’s where we first meet you.
DOUGHTY: I was living in San Francisco. I graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in medieval studies, with a thesis on the late medieval witchcraft trials. And I had studied mostly medieval death. But I wanted to know what death actually looked like in the real world, in modern America. And I got the job at the crematory. And I really thought that this was going to be a one-year thing. The fact that I had basically gone my entire life without ever even touching a dead body meant that I had a very uncomfortable relationship being in the presence of a dead body.
But within my first couple of days at the crematory, I was shaving a dead man. I was putting clothes on a dead man. I was washing the hair of a dead man. And then, I was pushing him into the cremation machine. The blast furnace flames came down. The 1,400-, 1,500-degree heat came down. And I pulled out his bones. And I had been with this man. It was almost this ritualistic thing where I was with this man through all these profound final moments of his existence on the planet. And the thing that I came to is other people should be doing this, not just me. This man’s family should have had the opportunity to be with the body the way that I was through this whole process. And that kind of became the basis of my advocacy.
KONNIKOVA: So why did you even decide to study medieval history?
DOUGHTY: I thought I wanted to be a First Amendment lawyer or a constitutional lawyer. And then, I got to college and I was like, I don’t know that any of this works for me. And I just kind of kept searching for what I was interested in until I found the very small medieval history department and fell in love with it. What I was trying to do with studying the witch trials is very similar to what I was trying to do in studying death and working at a crematory, is — how can we take these things that people are afraid of and turn it into something that they feel safe to engage with and learn about and experience?
KONNIKOVA: It’s funny because I definitely thought about the witch trials and crematories as similar in a different way in the sense of bodies being burned.
DOUGHTY: Yeah, there’s that very literal thing as well. And, if you want to talk about psychology, it’s possible that I just spent two years researching the death of women being burned. And then I went to a crematory and literally burned some people. So that’s my very specific life.
From researching burning to doing the burning herself — it’s quite a career jump. And it made quite the impression. Here’s Doughty reading from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, remembering some of her earliest moments on the job.
* * *
DOUGHTY: The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymus Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.
When the body goes into the retort, the first thing to burn is its cardboard box, or “alternative container” as it’s called on the funeral bill. The box immediately melts into flames, leaving the body defenseless against the inferno. Then the organic material burns away, and a complete change overtakes the body. Almost 80 percent of a human body is water, which evaporates with little trouble. The flames then go to work on the soft tissues, charring the whole body to a crispy black. Burning these parts, the ones that visually identify you, takes the bulk of the time.
* * *
But Doughty got more from the experience than just a paycheck and a tour through the physics of body-burning.
DOUGHTY: One thing I will say in favor of dead bodies is that they are incredibly profound. Just by sitting there doing nothing they are almost transcendent because they are such a profound reminder that we, too, will someday die. And as a medievalist, that’s what you learn about the art of the late medieval macabre. It’s dancing skeletons and bodies that are there to remind people, “Hey, just like me, someday you’re going to be decomposing. Someday you’re going to be a skeleton.” So when you’re a 22-year-old American and all of a sudden you have an opportunity to see dead bodies in the literal flesh, every day, that’s a wonderful opportunity.
If I was an 8-year-old in 1842, I would have seen dozens of corpses by the time that I was an adult, because not only did the family take care of their own dead, but there was a higher death rate at the time. So I would have been very familiar with dead bodies. But at a certain point, at the turn of the 20th century, the funeral industry became an industry. It became a capitalist system. It became a “professional system.” And in that professional system, you had to hand your body over to a professional person to take care of the body, to embalm the body, to chemically prepare the body, and then essentially sell the body as a product back to you. And that’s a very recent invention in human history. People even now who say, “I’m really uncomfortable going to a funeral. The dead body in the casket didn’t really look like Grandma. Or Grandpa was wearing lipstick and it kind of freaked me out.” It’s okay if you feel that way, because it is radically different than how death looked at any other time in human history.
KONNIKOVA: What prompted the change? Why do we suddenly have something like that where we didn’t need it in the 1800s or early 1900s, I guess?
DOUGHTY: You could start a lot of it with the American Civil War, because you had all of these soldiers that went to fight. They died in the South. And it was so important for the Northern families to be able to see the dead body that they were willing to do anything to get the bodies of their husbands and their sons back to them. So this new class of worker called an embalmer would follow the Civil War battles from battle to battle, almost like an ambulance chaser, and set up their embalming tents and say, “Hey, grieving parents, if you want me to disembowel your son and stuff him with sawdust and sew him back up so the body can be transported safely without bad smells or decomposition, I’m going to do that for you.” And that was actually a great service for the period.
After the Civil War things should have gone back to normal. But those same men said, “We’re gonna make embalming a thing. We’re going to travel the country. We’re going to convince people that the corpse is somehow dangerous if you don’t use these chemicals. For preservation, sanitation, and appearance, you need professional intervention with your dead bodies.” And it worked real well, because nowadays most people don’t even know that they have the power themselves to just take care of the dead in your own home if you want. You don’t actually need to use a funeral home.
Here’s Doughty, reading from Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.
* * *
DOUGHTY: Dying in the sanitary environment of a hospital is a relatively new concept. In the late 19th century, dying at a hospital was reserved for indigents, the people who had nothing and no one. Given the choice, a person wanted to die at home in their bed, surrounded by friends and family. As late as the beginning of the 20th century, more than 85 percent of Americans still died at home. The 1930s brought what is known as the “medicalization” of death. The hospital was a place where the dying could undergo the indignities of death without offending the sensibilities of the living.
* * *
KONNIKOVA: So now, let’s just go back a little bit to you and to your early days. I mean, I was blown away by the fact that it was really hard for you to get a job in a crematory.
DOUGHTY: I think it was hard because they weren’t necessarily looking for a 22- or 23-year-old woman to do the job. And I think it’s hard to keep people in a crematory job because it’s loud, it’s industrial. Most of our crematories in America do have a very Sturm und Drang, heavy, hot, dirty environment. But I think I just convinced them with my sincerity and my desire to do it. And I don’t know if I’ve ever worked as hard at a job in my life as I worked at that job because I was so eager to prove myself and that I belonged there. And it is changing.
Well over 50 percent of mortuary school graduates are women now. And many of them don’t come from any sort of funeral dynasty or their fathers weren’t funeral directors, their grandfathers weren’t funeral directors. So we are seeing a lot of shift back to women being the ones to care for the dead. But my argument is that it’s not because we’re the “naturally caring sex,” as the party line is really quick to say — it makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit — but the fact that women were always the one to take care of the dead bodies because it was something that happened in the home, so it was women’s responsibility to come together and take care of their dead family members.
KONNIKOVA: A lot of the things that you experienced early on, I would have said, “This was an interesting idea, but maybe not for me.”
DOUGHTY: I loved it. And I will say that it did genuinely feel like an honor because I had a pretty decent childhood, a nice, middle-class family, was able to go to university. I had a mostly sheltered life in that sense. And so, all of a sudden, working in this warehouse with a bunch of corpses and scraping their bones out of big industrial machines, that was a big change. But it made me feel alive and opened this whole new world. And I think what’s really kept me in there is that the combination between the physical work, seeing the dead body, and having those feelings towards it and the respect towards it, combined with this wild history of the funeral industry and how we got to where we are today, it’s almost like putting theory and practice together, which is also what I try to do in my writing.
In her book, Doughty talks about Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, a 1963 exposé of the funeral industry that became a surprise bestseller. Unlike Mitford, Doughty did not approach the business as a professional muckraker.
DOUGHTY: I did not go in with any sort of journalistic background or even a background as a writer. So it wasn’t like I went into it as some sort of stunt book where I was like, “I will work at a crematory for a year and expose what’s going on behind the scenes.” But when I did get in there, I was like, “Listen, this is good stuff.” And all I wanted to do was tell people what I was seeing and what I was learning. So I started a private blog for only 10 to 20 of my friends from college or my parents to read, and started putting these stories up as they happened, which is amazing in retrospect, because I have a really in-the-moment document of what I was feeling and what I was seeing.
There was one moment where I cremated a woman. And I delivered her ashes personally to her partner of many years. And he was looking very frail. And I handed the ashes over and I thought that was the last time I was gonna see him. And then, just a few weeks later, his body shows up at the crematory. And all of a sudden, I am sort of this link between them. I am the one who has cremated both of their bodies. And I am, in a strange way, intimately involved in their love story and in the arc of their life together.
Another key difference between Doughty and Mitford was their end-goal. Doughty doesn’t just want to keep the bereaved from getting ripped off, as Mitford set out to do. She also wants to help people face their fear of death, and come out the other side feeling more, not less, empowered. Here’s another excerpt from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
* * *
DOUGHTY: In writing The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford wasn’t trying to improve our relationship with death, she was trying to improve our relationship with the price point. That is where she went wrong. It was death that the public was being cheated out of by the funeral industry, not money. The realistic interaction with death and the chance to face our own mortality.
* * *
KONNIKOVA: So you do talk about an early experience in your life that seems to have been formative, which is witnessing a death when you were very young in a mall.
DOUGHTY: Yeah. So, I was 8 years old. And I was at my local mall in Hawaii, which is where I’m from. And it was one of those big, open-air malls, the really tall, two-story situation. And there was a very young child that fell off the second story balcony and hit the ground below. And I saw it happen. And it really was very difficult for me because I think I was at just the right age to take in the reality of death and kind of fall apart around it. And one of the things that made it so hard is I did not feel like I could talk to anyone about it. And my parents are amazing and loving and generous, and my friends are great. But at the time, because of my culture or because I felt it was too dangerous, I did not feel comfortable talking about it.
And so I kept it all inside. And it really made me very afraid for a very long time and develop some obsessive-compulsive rituals around it, trying to control my death anxiety. And I was able to move past that and become a very functional adult. But I do think my work that I still do today, and maybe even my drive to get a job at a crematory when I was 22, comes from a desire to fix my childhood. But also make sure that, can I do my little part to change how we see death and how we see dead bodies in our culture, to help other young people, or adults, for that matter, not be so afraid and not live with that underlying terror about death?
KONNIKOVA: Do you think that this underlying terror is something that’s unique to— you talk a little bit about the American puritanical origins and all of that, or do you think that it’s something that is more global?
DOUGHTY: I don’t think that there’s any culture where death is just no big deal. And frankly, anyone who tells me, “I don’t worry about death. It’s not a big deal to me” — I don’t trust them. There’s something amiss there. I think that we do have a somewhat genetically-programmed fear of death because it is so profoundly unknown. But I can also believe that we radically pathologize it in American culture, specifically. The fact that we feel the need to chemically preserve each body and put that body in a $6,000 steel casket that’s sealed with a rubber gasket and put that casket in a big, concrete, vault bunker underground so no dirt or decomposition may come anywhere near it — that kind of layers of fear wrapped around the dead body I do think is uniquely American, and, of course, has an effect on how death is perceived by the general population.
KONNIKOVA: Does this also go back to the Civil War, or do you think that this has deeper roots in terms of being uniquely American?
DOUGHTY: It’s definitely from the Civil War, but it’s also from the idea of American individualism. One of the most interesting things about American death and funerals isn’t even embalming, although that’s our greatest hit. It’s the fact that we are one of the few countries, including most other industrialized countries, that do not reuse graves. Most other places, you’re leasing a grave site. It’s like you’re leasing an apartment. You’re not buying a forever home. It’s just your place that you can decompose for 15 years or 30 years. And then they remove your bones and they put the bones in a central location, or they move you down and put someone else on top of you. But in America, we have the idea that our graves are going to be our super-special graves forever and ever, which kind of goes to the old trope of being able to learn a lot about a culture through how it treats its dead.
* * *
I’m Maria Konnikova. Today, we’re talking with mortician and author Caitlin Doughty about her first book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was published in 2014, when Doughty was 30. The book chronicles her first few years working in the funeral industry, and, in particular, working at a crematory in Oakland, California. One thing that struck me as I read was just how artificial the whole process of making a corpse look natural actually is.
DOUGHTY: I was fortunate enough that my first job wasn’t particularly focused on embalming. This was not the old-school, traditional funeral home that you think of with grandmother in the lilac suit, in polyester, with the silken sheets around her and all the flowers. It was a little more utilitarian than that. But even then, we still had to prepare the dead body.
To close the mouth, you either sew the jaw together internally and through the nose, or you have this thing called the needle injector where you shoot a little barbed wire into the top gums and bottom gums and then tie the jaw together with wire. And those are just the simple things that we do to not make the person have their eyes open or their mouth open because we’ve come to a place in death where the family can’t even see that. It’s not that my argument here was like, “Just show them. Even if they’re bleeding, just roll out the body and show them.” Although, I don’t know. I actually maybe do think that to be honest. I think that families can handle that. Especially if you give them a lot of space to ask questions and be involved. It’s their own mother. It’s their own husband. They’re not horrified by whatever happens to their mother if they feel like they’re a part of it.
Doughty writes vividly about the reality of the dead body. What she sees is not what we see when we look into an open casket.
* * *
DOUGHTY: Untreated, a dead person’s face looks horrific, at least by our very narrow cultural expectations. Their droopy, open eyes cloud over in a vacant stare. Their mouths stretch wide like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The color drains from their faces. These images reflect the normal biological processes of death, but they are not what a family wants to see. As part of their price lists, funeral homes generally charge anywhere from $175 to $500 for “setting the features.” That is how corpses come to look “peaceful,” “natural,” and “at rest.” If all or these tricks failed and the eyes or mouth still insisted on falling open, there was always the secret weapon: superglue. We used those little green tubes of liquid magic for everything.
* * *
KONNIKOVA: So someone has died. And I call you up, and I say, “Grandma is dead.” So, who are the different people? What were the different roles?
DOUGHTY: So when you call, there would be someone who is a removal driver whose main job it is to come remove the body from wherever they die. That could be the hospital. That could be your own home. That person comes to pick the person up and they bring them to the crematorium.
KONNIKOVA: But sometimes that person is not alone, correct?
DOUGHTY: On home removals, there would need to be two people. So, if we’re going into someone’s home, you can’t be alone and drop the body down the stairs. That’s not a good look for your funeral home. So, if we’re going to an institutional removal, like a hospital, you could just bring one person. But if you’re going into someone’s home, you would need two people. Also because sometimes the body is like in a La-Z-Boy recliner or sometimes the body is next to the toilet. You never really know what situation you’re walking into.
So, it would be brought back to the crematory. And at that point your funeral director would be in contact with the family to do all of the bureaucracy. And this is actually a big part of the funeral job, getting the death certificate filed and getting all of the government paperwork filed. And once that all goes through, we get something called a burial transit permit, and that’s what allows us to actually cremate the body. At that point, he gets put on the schedule, and he gets picked up by me, the crematory operator, and he goes into the cremation machine. And the cremation is about a two-hour process — about an hour and a half for the actual cremation process to take place, where the full human body is burned down to, essentially, its inorganic bone fragments, and then about a half an hour to cool down because their bones are too molten when it first ends.
And then, you pull out those bones, you take them over to a machine called the cremulator, which is essentially a large bone blender. And that whirs the bones up into the fine, sandy consistency that we associate with cremated remains that can be scattered, that can be put into an urn, that can be buried. And we put those into a little plastic temporary urn. And then, at that point, we call the family, and we tell them that they’re available to come pick up at the funeral home. In a large, corporate funeral home, you generally do a very specific job. You’re just the funeral arranger. You’re just the crematory operator. You’re just a removal driver. But because I worked at this smaller, family-owned facility, I got to do it all.
KONNIKOVA: Sorry for the slightly morbid question, but did you have a favorite part, a favorite role?
DOUGHTY: This sounds a little cheesy, but my favorite role was thinking about these exact issues that we’re talking about now. And all the different parts of the job would inspire me to have these thoughts. So just the moment of pulling a cremated body out of the machine and the skull is still partially intact and it crumbles in my hands because the inorganic bone fragments are so brittle. And to see this sort of “Et tu, Brutus?” crumble in my hands, like, where does that put me in the whole history of people who have taken care of the dead? What does this mean historically? What does this mean culturally? What is the future of death? It was probably the most intellectually delightful time of my life.
KONNIKOVA: And contrast this with moments where you had human remains on you. You have this scene which made me want to close the book just for a second and take a step back where you get new floors in your crematory machine.
DOUGHTY: Yes. The retort or this cremation machine is basically a brick chamber. And over time, the floor gets chipped away as you’re scraping the bones out at the end of the process. And so, that creates natural divots in the floor where during the cremation process, fat, which is being burned off, has a moment to pool there for a second. But when you put in brand new floors and they are completely slick and completely flat, there was nowhere for this one poor woman’s fat to go. So, it started sliding out the front of the machine into my horrified lap, basically. And luckily, my boss was there and somehow just kept a calm head and turned things off and then switched it up and allowed the cremation to keep going. But I don’t think that’s in contrast to these moments of insight and wonder, because that’s wild in and of itself. That’s a wild human moment. That never happened to me again. Hasn’t happened to anyone else I know. I’m one of the few people I know that had hot fat, human fat, poured into my lap.
Such gory details make for perfect party banter. But that’s far from the only way around complacency. There’s also the quieter approach — one that comes from beauty rather than disgust.
KONNIKOVA: So tell us a little bit about the ash-scattering boats, how common that is, and just — I mean, to me, that seemed so beautiful.
DOUGHTY: Absolutely. If you’re family, you can hire someone to take you out on a boat. And sometimes if you get the right captain, he knows how to go at sunset when there are dolphins jumping. And it’s just so charismatic and beautiful. I can see why people are drawn to that, especially if they live in Southern California, where my funeral home is. But also, if you’re a crematory, you have ashes that maybe nobody picks up for a long period of time. Or you have people just say, “Hey, you know, I live in Ohio, but my brother loved the ocean. And since I paid for his cremation, I’m going to pay you to go out and scatter him for me.” And sometimes that happens with 20 people at once or 20 sets of ashes at once. And I think it’s quite lovely and quite communal.
KONNIKOVA: So one of the things that I didn’t realize was possible when you talk through the cremation process is that it’s actually an option to witness this.
DOUGHTY: Absolutely. Most families end up coming in and they walk up to the casket where Grandma is and they kind of awkwardly tap her on the hand and then back away and sit down. Maybe they sing a hymn. That’s their involvement in the funeral process. And, if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. But be aware that you have many more options. And one of those options is a witness cremation. And what that is is you come in and you usually have about half an hour or so to spend with the person before the cremation.
You can hang out. You can help them get dressed. You can put on mom’s favorite lipstick. You can put on some of her jewelry. You can write notes and leave them under her hand to be cremated with her. And then, you walk back into the crematory with us and the door opens on the machine. And you and your family can help push the body into the machine and then push the button to close the door and start the process. It also takes away some of the fear that people have around cremation, of “Is that really Mom?” She goes back to this mysterious place and then we get her ashes. It gives that opportunity to be fully aware and pull the veil back and see what’s really happening and feel more comfortable with it, I think.
That sense of transparency is important. As Doughty notes in the book, people are naturally distrustful of crematory operators. It’s a leap of faith, after all, to accept that the dust in an urn was actually once your grandfather or a favorite aunt. And there is, on occasion, reason to be suspicious. If you want to hear about some shady mass pet cremations, listen to Freakonomics Radio Ep. 142: “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.”
Katherine WELLS: This gets a little gory, but what he did was he had a vet implant each dead animal with this tracking material, titanium dioxide. When a lab analyzed the cremains for the tracking material, three of the eight samples weren’t right.
Even when the proceedings are technically above-board, people can still feel like they’re being deceived. Like the reality in front of them isn’t the one they’d signed up — or paid — for.
KONNIKOVA: You have a moment in your book where you go from professional detachment to something very personal when someone close to you dies.
DOUGHTY: This is my grandmother’s death. I grew up right down the road from her, pretty close. And she had preplanned her funeral. She had prepaid for it with a mortuary in Hawaii, and — a mortuary that was owned by a very large corporation. And we go in and my thing already, even after working in the industry just a couple years, is the family takes care of the person. They come in. They witness the cremation. They’re there. You don’t do a lot of intervention with the body. You don’t embalm the body. And even with me sitting there, as at this point almost an expert on how to say no to these things.
They were really working on me. They were saying, “Are you sure? You already paid for the embalming. We can just embalm her. It’s not a big deal. Are you sure you don’t want us to do this to her? Are you sure you don’t want us to do this to her?” And they were adding on all of these things, and I almost couldn’t stop them. And I knew all the language, and I knew all the tricks. And even when we got to the actual viewing, her body had pretty garish lipstick on it. And she looked really different than the pictures that my mother had sent within a couple hours after she had died, where she looked like an older woman who was dead. But she looked perfect. She looked wonderful. And now, she looked like she had been worked on in a lot of ways. And that’s part of the funeral system that I am a part of. And it’s part of the funeral system that I’m trying to reform.
KONNIKOVA: How do you do that?
DOUGHTY: First of all, you can know that it is 100 percent your right not to embalm. You don’t have to choose cremation. You don’t have to choose burial. You don’t have to choose an expensive casket. You don’t have to choose makeup. You don’t have to choose a particular type of dress or a particular type of ceremony. You, as a family, absolutely have the right to make the choices that work for you. You shouldn’t spend more money than you’re comfortable spending. And sometimes it is helpful to have someone on your side who knows these things that is not the wife or is not the child and isn’t in the deepest grief in the moment. Because that can be the person who’s the advocate, who’s there to call around and ask about pricing and ask these transparency questions. If you’re willing to be that person to somebody that you care about, it’s worth its weight in gold.
KONNIKOVA: So we’ve talked about a few different cremation options, but those aren’t your only options, right? There are lots and lots of different burial options. It’s not just casket or cremation.
DOUGHTY: It’s hard to say this, but it’s an exciting time to be in death because our opportunity for reform and to die better has almost never been higher. There’s a lot of transition happening right now, a lot of new green death options. So it’s kind of this combination of old and new, old in the sense of people saying, “Okay, we don’t need to embalm. Maybe we’ll just have a very simple ceremony with the body at home.” And so that’s kind of the return to the old. But then, with the new, we have techniques like aquamation, which is basically a water cremation, which is a high-heat water dissolving the body, similar to the way flame would with a cremation.
And the end product is very much the same, just ashes that you can scatter or keep in an urn on your mantelpiece. And then we have things like recomposition, which is human composting, taking humans and putting them through air and wood chips, breaking their body directly down to soil. And, you know, open-air pyres like the one in Crestone, Colorado. These are innovations that are uniquely American. Not open-air pyres. That’s, of course, an ancient tradition. And then, we have natural burial, which is just a simple hole in the ground that your shrouded body goes in. And it’s the burial we’ve been doing for thousands of years and just allowing the body to decompose into the soil without the embalming and the casket and the vault and all the layers around it.
KONNIKOVA: So what would you choose for yourself? And has that choice changed over time?
DOUGHTY: Well, my current desire is to be eaten by animals. Unfortunately, that is not legal — yet, unless I want to go to a body farm or a human decomposition facility where they lay me out to study me. But perhaps by the time I die, being eaten by vultures will be available. I think that I would just want a very simple, natural burial. I call it “corpse, ground, hole, dump.” Just a nice little hole, a place for me to go in and let my atoms be useful. My body is not precious. It’s organic material. It’s part of the natural world. And that’s where I want to return.
KONNIKOVA: We’re living through a moment that I don’t think any adult in the United States has lived through before, where we’re in the midst of a pandemic. And there was a period early on where there actually were bodies piling up.
DOUGHTY: Yeah, and Americans were not ready for that, right? Whereas, in fact, I take some issue with our funeral-industry response to coronavirus. But in this unprecedented time, in a pandemic, it’s actually very positive that they brought in refrigerated trucks, that they had a place for the dead bodies to go. And that was the real big difference between what happened in 1918 with that pandemic and the one now. We did not have refrigeration back in 1918. So the fact that we could now keep our bodies refrigerated, slow down that decomposition, wait until the time would come that we needed them to be disposed of, buried or cremated, that was a real gift and a real shift. And I think that funeral directors are actually handling everything quite well.
Here’s another excerpt from Doughty’s book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
* * *
DOUGHTY: Though you may never have attended a funeral, two of the world’s humans die every second. Eight in the time it took you to hear that sentence. Now we’re at 14. If this is too abstract, consider this number: 2.5 million. The 2.5 million people who die in the United States every year. The dead space this process out nicely so that the living hardly even notice they’re undergoing the transformation. We’d probably pay more attention if no one died all year, then on December 31st the entire population of Chicago suddenly dropped dead. Or Houston. Or Las Vegas and Detroit put together.
* * *
Remember, Doughty published this book in 2014. Even before the pandemic, the number of U.S. deaths had risen to around 2.7 million per year. And there will be even more than usual in 2020 — not just an additional few hundred thousand from Covid-19. Last year, there were also more deaths than typical from causes like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
KONNIKOVA: So there’s a theme in your book that made me think about coronavirus and what we’re dealing with right now, which is that there’s this myth that bodies have to leave the house within a certain very short period of time, and otherwise, you can get contaminated, and you can get sick.
DOUGHTY: Yeah. Death is not an emergency. Someone is going to be dead an hour from now, and they’re going to be dead five hours from now, and they’re going to be dead five days from now. And that’s one of the things that the funeral industry can kind of get a family on, is the idea of emergency and the idea of funeral industry intervention being entirely necessary and shrieking in and taking the body away right away.
So, I encourage people to slow down when someone dies. And as far as the dead body being safe, it is almost universally safe. And I say almost because there are a few caveats — Ebola being one of them, bird flu being another one. Covid-19, there was some confusion at the beginning where it was possibly dangerous. We now think that there is probably no danger with a Covid-19 body at all. It’s the living people around the person who’s died that probably are far, far more infectious. But that’s still to be determined. But if your mother died of cancer, if she died of heart failure, if she died of all the things that people die of, there is absolutely nothing dangerous about her dead body. And she does not need to be treated with gloves and hazmat suits.
KONNIKOVA: And she does not need to be treated immediately.
DOUGHTY: No. She’s not instantly decomposing either. So, that’s also what I mean about slow down. Just take the time. If mom dies at home, she has ovarian cancer and she dies on hospice in the house, you don’t have to call anyone for 24 hours, for 48 hours. You can take all the time you need to make the right decisions about when you’re ready to let her go. When things shift for you and you feel like it’s time, do people want to come visit her? Do you want to just have the funeral there at home rather than paying a private business to facilitate it for you? All of those options are on the table.
Here’s a passage from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes in which Doughty describes the author of a 1993 memoir called Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician.
* * *
DOUGHTY: Shinmon Aoki, a modern undertaker in Japan, described being ridiculed by society for his job washing and casketing the dead. His family disowned him and his wife wouldn’t sleep with him because he was “defiled” by corpses. So Aoki purchased a surgical robe, mask, and gloves and began showing up to homes dressed in full medical garb. People began responding differently; they bought the image he was selling and called him “doctor.” The American undertaker had done something similar: by making themselves “medical,” they became legitimate.
* * *
You don’t have to go to medical school, or even mortuary school, to become a funeral director. But after her first job at the crematory, Doughty enrolled at the Cypress College of Mortuary Science. Which surprised me.
KONNIKOVA: Why did you decide that you wanted to go to mortuary school?
DOUGHTY: I would say, two main reasons. First, I wanted to have the full experience of being a funeral director in America. And part of that experience is going to mortuary school and seeing what they’re teaching. And secondly, I knew within the first year that the job I was going to be doing was this. And by “this,” I mean trying to reform the funeral industry and being a public advocate for reform in the funeral industry. And I knew that one of the things that would get me taken seriously is to have all of my credentials in place. I knew that if I did not have a mortuary science degree, it would be very easy for the older gentlemen in the funeral industry to say, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She never even went to mortuary school.” And — surprise — they still say that all the time. They just have a little bit less of a leg to stand on because I did actually go to mortuary school.
KONNIKOVA: Caitlin, you went to mortuary school for the same reason I got my Ph.D. in psychology. So that those old men could not say, “What in the world are you talking about?” And they still say it.
DOUGHTY: And they still say it. There’s conspiracies that I never actually graduated from mortuary school. There’s like a “show me the long form birth certificate” version of my mortuary school degree.
KONNIKOVA: You talk a little bit about bodies that are used for science and donated to science and how they don’t always end up the way that one might think.
DOUGHTY: Yeah, when I talk about lower-cost options for death, I get a lot of people saying, “Why isn’t your main recommendation scientific donation?” And the reason that it’s not is because there are a lot of complicated issues that come with donation. For example, you can sign up to have your body donated and they can reject you. They can say, “She’s a little too old. She’s a little too heavy. She had the wrong kind of disease. We actually don’t want her anymore.” And then, all of a sudden, you’re left having to figure out her cremation or burial at the last minute.
And then, the other reason is if you are donating through a private company, you don’t have really that much control as to what happens to Mom. And maybe that’s totally fine with Mom. Mom is the type of person that says, “I don’t care. Just throw me out. Use me how they want. You get a free cremation. Off you go.” In that case, wonderful. That’s a perfect fit. But if Mom thinks she’s going to cure cancer and they actually use her for ballistic missile testing or for war and military techniques or plastic surgery practice — there are all sorts of things that they use these bodies for that may not align with your values. So I’m not against scientific donation at all. I just think people should do their research before making that decision.
KONNIKOVA: You know in the last year, a lot of people who hadn’t experienced death or hadn’t been anticipating it have had to deal with it. So do you have any advice for how to deal with that, how to express sympathy to a friend who’s gone through that? You know, what do you say? What do you do?
DOUGHTY: When you are talking to someone who has lost a family member to Covid, don’t say, “Oh, it’s just like when my dad died. I totally know how you feel,” because you probably don’t, because this is pretty unprecedented. So it might be a lot more appropriate to say something just like, “I have no idea how you’re handling this. I am so sorry. This must be difficult for you in so many specific ways that other people can’t understand. And I can’t understand it. I just want you to know how sorry I am and how much I feel for you.”
And because you maybe can’t even really go see them right now, send them something nice that shows that you’re thinking of them. Have some food delivered to them. There’s going to be this whole year’s worth of people that kind of get lost in a way. Like, their deaths and the experience of their death gets lost socially. So six months from now, a year from now, when nobody’s talking about the pandemic anymore, knock on wood, that’s the time to continue to check in with them and say, “Hey, I thought about your dad the other day. I’m still thinking about you.” Because people go away after the first couple weeks when someone dies.
* * *
DOUGHTY: Ars Moriendi were instruction manuals that taught Christians how to die the good death, repenting mortal sins and allowing the soul to ascend to heaven. This view of death as an “art” or “practice,” rather than an emotionless biological process, can be tremendously empowering. For me, the good death includes being prepared to die, with my affairs in order, the good and bad messages delivered that need delivering. The good death means dying while I still have my mind sharp and aware; it also means dying without having to endure large amounts of suffering and pain. The good death means accepting death as inevitable, and not fighting it when the time comes. This is my good death, but as legendary psychotherapist Carl Jung said, It won’t help to hear what I think about death. Your relationship to mortality is your own.
* * *
KONNIKOVA: So talk to me about where we are right now and where you would like us to be and how we get there in terms of the death industry and how we run funeral homes and crematories and how we run the entire process.
DOUGHTY: We’re in a better place than we were 10 years ago. The thing that is interesting about death care is that reform is so close and would be so easy. Like, there are these huge systemic problems that we’re facing in America, especially, right? And they feel insurmountable. Like, nothing is going to just solve climate change. But the funeral industry is actually relatively easy to reform if there were some laws that were changed, if people were aware of their rights.
KONNIKOVA: And what would some of those reforms be?
DOUGHTY: One thing is the idea of the laws that put into place a very high barrier to entry to start in the funeral industry, to either open a funeral home or to become a funeral director or an embalmer. There’s very, very high barriers to entry because it’s economic protectionism. We want to keep the funeral industry looking a certain way, being able to charge a certain price, and have a limited number of options. But we’re an incredibly diverse country and we deserve incredibly diverse options when it comes to what we want to do with our dead.
KONNIKOVA: So do you think that “beautiful” is a good or the proper or the right adjective, the way that you want to describe death? Or has your thinking changed?
DOUGHTY: When I think of a beautiful dead body, I think of a dead body that’s just in its natural state. If Mom died when she was 90 years old, and she was very ill, and you can walk into the room, and you can see her still and silent and no longer suffering, and you can wash her body and take care of her the way that she took care of you for so many years, that is what is beautiful to me, just that simple, community-minded, family-minded, love-minded care for the dead body. No frills, no expensive casket, no embalming or intervention, just that beautiful moment with a community and their dead.
KONNIKOVA: And that’s a beautiful statement. Even more so coming from someone who actually runs a funeral home, because I imagine that you get less money from something like that.
DOUGHTY: We get a lot less money. We’re one of the least expensive funeral homes in Los Angeles. But we’re trying to do a new thing. And frankly, someday I’d be happy to get myself out of business. If families were so ready to step up and take care of their own dead because they felt educated and empowered, and all they needed me to do was file the death certificate and get out of the way, that would be fine with me.
* * *
DUBNER: That was Maria Konnikova in conversation with Caitlin Doughty about her 2014 book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. That was Doughty’s first book; she has since published two more books: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: And Other Questions About Dead Bodies. As Maria mentioned, we did an episode some years back on the pet-cremation business, called “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.” It’s episode No. 142. You can find it in our archive — which, I’m happy to say, is now available, in its entirety, on any podcast app, for free. We’d love to hear what you thought of this special Freakonomics Radio Book Club episode, or about anything. We’re at email@example.com.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Brent Katz. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, Matt Hickey, Mary Diduch, Zack Lapinski, Daphne Chen, and Emma Tyrrell; we had help this week from Jasmin Klinger. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music was composed by Luis Guerra with additional music this week by Michael Reola and Stephen Ulrich. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Maria Konnikova, New Yorker writer and author of The Biggest Bluff.
- Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory.
- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty.
- “Covid-19 and Cancer,” by Dr. Ned Sharpless (Science, 2020).
- The American Way of Death Revisited, by Jessica Mitford.
- From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty.
- Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: And Other Questions About Dead Bodies by Caitlin Doughty.
- The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, by Maria Konnikova.
- “How to Make Your Own Luck (Ep. 424)” by Freakonomics Radio (2020).
- “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat (Ep. 142)” by Freakonomics Radio (2013).