The latest innovation in death may simply be talking about it


Since attending the University of Chicago to study Medieval History, Caitlin Doughty has been fascinated by the experience of death. But her interest was more than the macabre. “I knew about ritual,” she begins, “but I didn’t know what it was really like to be in the presence of the dead . . . And I’ve come to find in the ensuing years that’s the most fundamental thing in the entire world.”

Now a mortician in Los Angeles, Doughty uses social media to share her knowledge about death. People ask her everything from “Can I tattoo a dead body?” to “What is rigor mortis?” The popularity of her Ask A Mortician episodes on YouTube, her blog Order of The Good Death, and large Facebook and Twitter followings seem to fly in the face of the societal notion that death is either an unpleasantness not to be spoken of, or filled with brain-eating zombies.

Doughty knows that as a healthcare professional talking candidly and publicly about her work is considered taboo by her peers: “The type of reputation I want to have is someone who is open, and there’s a dialogue, and there’s understanding, and there’s a new way of interacting with death.” She notes, “I’ve had a couple people say ‘this is not how we do it in the funeral industry; the curtains are there for a reason.’” 

But Doughty sees the Internet as a way of pulling back those curtains. “The idea behind social media is it can be used for good and evil,” she begins. “If it’s going to be used to propagate fears it can also be used to propagate information and openness and dialogue. I’m fighting the good fight, one tweet at a time!”

Which begs the question, is the latest innovation in death simply talking about it?

One of the reasons Doughty finds herself answering basic questions about death is partly because of innovations in death practices over the past 150 years. For most of human history family and loved ones would wash, shroud, and bury their dead. Morticians initially were trinket salesmen, selling mementos to remember the deceased.

However during the Civil War when casualties were high and often in compromised states due to injury, morticians had something new to sell: embalming. Now a body could be preserved for viewing, and with that the funerary industry took off. It was no longer just simply preserving a body but over-the-top flower arrangements and $10,000 waterproof caskets.

With each new innovation the living became more and more removed from their dead, with the mortician the conductor of a new type of death ritual where the body was whisked away as fast as possible. In fact today it is possible to go online, type in your credit card, and have your loved one's ashes delivered in six to eight weeks. All without ever seeing a body.

How then to end this cycle, especially when “now people don’t even know where to start [engaging with death]. And the only ways they can think of to start are really horrifying to them?" Asking questions to people like Doughty is one way but so is simply thinking about death. “I recommend anticipatory grief,” she says.

“In very small ways think about your own mortality, your parents, loved ones . . . think about attending their funeral, being with their body. How they won’t be in your life . . . don’t obsess over it or worry all the time, but just let it inform your relationships with them.” Mentally preparing for death, therefore, can help when there is emotional stress from loss. It also is beneficial to your health in the long runwhen something is anticipated and expected, the trauma from upsetting events is lessened. 


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