Ask a Mortician

Mortician Caitlin Doughty is, host of a popular YouTube channel called “Ask a Mortician,” is trying to help us to not be afraid of death and dying.


| July/August 2013



Mortician Caitlin Doughty

Cailtin Doughty may very well be the world’s most famous practicing undertaker. She writes, produces, and stars in the popular web series “Ask a Mortician.”

Photo By ACP

Located on Santa Monica Boulevard and abutting Paramount Studios, Hollywood Forever is one of Los Angeles’s oldest, most idiosyncratic cemeteries. Marble obelisks tower over squat tombstones of Armenian immigrants, the latter boasting detailed photographic etchings, as if someone managed to render ’70s-era wedding Polaroids into stone. Peacocks amble around the graves of Fay Wray and Rudolph Valentino. Punk titan Johnny Ramone is memorialized with an eight-foot bronze statue of the musician playing guitar. Recently a dilapidated graveyard on the brink of closure, Hollywood Forever has become a vibrant public venue after changing hands in 1998. The cemetery hosts movie nights and a popular Día de los Muertos festival. The rock band the Flaming Lips has played there. 

This “is how cemeteries used to be,” says Caitlin Doughty. “In the Middle Ages, in the Victorian Period, ... cemeteries were places where commerce took place, and lovers walked through the graves to meet at night. You had this engagement with the cemetery as a community place, which we don’t really have anymore.” This collision point between somber burial ground and riotous rock venue, a space that survived modern economic realities by resurrecting a medieval communal impulse, was a fitting setting when, on a quickly cooling Friday afternoon last November, Doughty taught me how to die. 

Which is entirely in line with her professional and philosophical vision: she prompts strangers to confront, accept, and embrace the inevitable extinction of their personality and dissolution of their body. We almost entirely ignore, repress, or euphemize our own death, but Doughty wants us to not only accept but also rejoice in death, our “most intimate relationship.” 

At 28, Doughty may very well be the world’s most famous practicing undertaker. She writes, produces, and stars in the popular web series “Ask a Mortician.” A recent YouTube commenter named her the “Bill Nye of Death.” Her forthcoming book from Norton, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematory), was the object of an eight-publisher bidding war. The 14 videos in the “Ask a Mortician” series, in which Doughty wryly answers viewer questions such as “Can a casket explode if it is totally sealed up?” (sometimes), “Do corpses soil themselves after death?” (sometimes), and “Are they going to take my 92-year-old mother’s body and dissolve it in acid?” (no), have been viewed almost 600,000 times. She is also the creator and guiding voice of the Order of the Good Death, a collective of artists, writers, and filmmakers whose work deals with embracing mortality. 

 

Nobody wants to die, but to die and to die terrified are vastly different experiences. As Doughty writes on the website for the Order of the Good Death, her work is about “making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, that pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” She draws a distinction between those feelings and grieving—in fact argues that, freed of death anxiety, we can better grieve loss. “I’m never going to say that you’re not going to have grief, but I feel like when somebody I’m very close to dies, I’m going to be grieving for them,” Doughty says. “I’m not like, ‘this means I’m going to die, what does that mean for the universe, why do people die, it’s not fair.’ I’ve answered those questions, so I can focus on my specific grief as opposed to putting all this other emotional baggage into it.”