When you type “necrophilia” into the search bar on YouTube, the first result you get is a pale, gray-eyed woman with black bangs framing her face. That’s Caitlin Doughty, mortician to the internet.
A professional mortician, YouTube star (she has almost 30,000 followers), and newly minted author — her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory, came out earlier this month — Doughty is on a mission to alter American attitudes about death and dying and empower people to make informed choices what will be done with them after they die.
She does so by answering questions about death matter-of-factly: On her YouTube show “Ask a Mortician,” Doughty frequently combines historical context with personal experience. Discussing necrophilia, for instance, she delves into the roots of the word, as well as into how common the practice actually is (more on that in a bit). In another episode, she addresses the mystery of what happens to breast implants during a cremation. After the Sandy Hook shooting, she filmed an episode that explained how parents should best discuss death with their children.
Doughty first really delved into the subject as a medieval studies major at the University of Chicago, where she fell in love with medieval funeral rites and attitudes about death and decomposition. (She still draws from that academic influence; when talking about the importance of ritual in death customs, Doughty draws heavily on Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist who made his name at her alma mater.)
Now 30, Doughty is a seasoned mortician. She worked in the “traditional death industry” for years, before quitting last fall to write her book and launch Undertaking LA, a new venture that will combine death-related education with some of the functions of a funeral home of her own.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a humorous account of her early work as a crematory operator, and her own evolving attitudes toward death. At 23, she writes, her goal was to parlay crematory experience into a “sleek and modern” funeral home called La Belle Mort, where families could send a parent’s ashes into space and host parties. It would “put the ‘fun’ back into ‘funeral,’” and heal the trauma she suffered at age 8 when she saw another child die. Now she’s more focused on grappling with what death means than thinking of innovative ways to celebrate people’s remains.
She has been fascinated with death since childhood. “I think a lot of people are,” she says, adding that they’re encouraged to suppress it because society deems it inappropriate. (She even filmed an It Gets Better video for the death-interested kids who write to her, telling them that now, all most people want to talk to her about is death.) For many, Doughty says that turns into an unhealthy relationship, and leads to societal stigmatization of aging and illness as things we don’t want to deal with.
It also means that when death does roll around, people don’t know what to do. She cites the youth trend of funeral selfies as one unfortunate example — we don’t give young people the tools to cope with grief, Doughty explains, and are then surprised when they act out inappropriately.
That’s why a lot of her outreach is informational, explaining what happens at various points in the death process, what the options are, and what people should ask. The internet’s response to her frank death talk has been generally positive, but she’s also experienced harassment similar to that faced by other women online. (“You give my penis rigor mortis” jokes are common.)
Perhaps most of all, Doughty’s work tries to empower people to ask questions and advocate for what will best help them cope with grief. Oftentimes, a lack of knowledge about what is legal or permissible leads to grieving family members surrendering their rights because of misinformation. For instance, Doughty has countless stories of ill-informed police and funeral home officials telling families that bodies must be removed from the home right away. That, Doughty says, is just not true — a family can hold on to the body for as long as they need to say good-bye.
One way this letting-go process happened, until the relatively recent “medicalization” of death and proliferation of the funeral industry, was through home funerals, when families kept the body at home until burial or cremation. This allowed families to acclimate to the presence of a corpse quickly, said Doughty, because they were taking care of someone they love. Keeping the body at home also means families are able to nix procedures like embalming, which is often unnecessary if burial or cremation is taking place soon after death. Instead, families are able to see that the dead person is gone and part with them on their own terms — and to see for themselves the answers to the questions Doughty often responds to on her YouTube show.
Even though it covers serious issues, Doughty’s show retains a light and quirky tone. As for the YouTube question about necrophilia? According to Doughty, it’s not as common in the profession as the prevalence of questions about it would suggest.
“But it’s totally okay that you’re fascinated by it, because it’s grade-A transgressive stuff,” Doughty reassured the asker. “If you’re worried that you are a necrophiliac, my friend Snow Mercy, a dominatrix who also happens to be my dopplegänger, gave a great talk recently on corpse play, or necrophilia role-play, which is available at some dungeons.”