YouTube mortician on death in the digital age
Caitlin Doughty is the host of the popular YouTube series Ask a Mortician and author of a new memoir: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory. She’s also founder of the group of funeral professionals called The Order of the Good Death.
She joined Afternoon Shift host Niala Boodhoo for Tech Shift as part of our week of conversationsabout the relationship between death and the digital realm.
Doughty will speak at at Packer Schopf Gallery in the West Loop on Oct. 31.
Why did you start making the Ask a Mortician YouTube videos?
I was working at a funeral home in Los Angeles and the vice president was making question and answer videos for the company. And they were so bad. Like you could see her get up at the end to turn the camera off. I was watching them and just thinking 'I know I could do better than this.' I had already started this group called The Order of the Good Death trying to bring conversations about mortality back into culture and starting a web series was just one more shot in the dark to see if we could get the conversation started.
Were you surprised at how popular Ask a Mortician has been?
Yes and no. There’s not really anything else like it. It’s not like makeup videos or science videos where there’s a precedent. But at the same time, I know what it’s like at cocktail parties. I know what it’s like at family reunions. People have thousands of questions.
Sometimes online learning it gets criticized as being impersonal. But when it comes to something like death, does distance help because people are so uncomfortable asking about it?
Actually what I’ve found is I can make one video and it will have 30 times the impact as a single blog post because with death I think people want a friendly face. They want someone saying ‘Hey! I know we’re talking about decomposition, and that’s super freaky, but I’m a friendly person who can calmly handle it and give you a scientific but also kind of humorous answer.' The people factor is I think what’s made it successful.
You mention in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes that people can now handle funeral arrangements from death to the arrival of an urn completely online. How do you feel about that?
I’m not pro that. I don’t think it’s stoppable now that it’s started. It’s going to continue growing in popularity. Someone can call from a hospital, or type information in online, have it faxed to a funeral home, never speak to a funeral home employee at all, and then the ashes are delivered by the U.S. Postal Service two weeks later. So you never see the body. Never talk to a living person. And then it’s just these intangible ashes that come at the end. I don’t know if that’s really how human beings have evolved to handle death. And just taking death entirely out of our culture doesn’t seem like that healthy of an option to me.
You studied medieval history at the University of Chicago. There is certainly less mystery now about how people die, but as you said there’s also this more impersonal relationship with the dead. Do you think advancements in medical science have made us more or less afraid of death than societies were in the past?
That’s the interesting paradox. Because on one hand, in the Middle Ages, you had no idea what blood did. You thought that it was the four humors and flem and bile that were where sickness came from. They did dissections on dogs to study human anatomy. We had virtually no idea how the human body actually worked. Yet, we had dead bodies and death around us all the time. People died in their homes, and then you would bury them in the churchyard or in the church itself. So there would be bodies under the floorboards, in the walls, in the rafters. So you didn’t have the opportunity not to be comfortable with death.
And now it’s almost the exact reverse of that. We have all of these intimate understandings of how the body works and how it might stop and how we might fix it. But when it comes to death, we don’t see the body. We don’t interact with it. And really even dying has been taken out of the home as well. I think that’s something we’re struggling with now.
How has technology changed the way the funeral business works?
If it makes more sense to drive your Prius to the family’s home with your iPad to do the death certificate like that instead of them coming to an old, traditional funeral home, that can make some families feel a lot better. But at the same time we don’t want technology to overpower the interactive experience of mourning and grief and all the options a family has to be there for some kind of ritual and some kind of performative mourning.
Also, crematories and embalming facilities now are largely centralized. Bodies are taken to all one location as opposed to the idea of the mom and pop funeral home where the body is there the whole time. And then also there’s the idea that people want to know more about death and have access to that through the Internet. Whereas before the funeral industry could get away with all manner of things and get away with being secretive, they can’t really now because there are people online asking questions.
This conversation has been lightly edited.