Every day, Caitlin Doughty gets dozens of questions about death and her work as a funeral director, and she says the best ones come from kids — so much so that she decided to write a book about it.
Reset sat down with Doughty to talk about Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? where she answers 35 questions from kids about death, dead bodies and decomposition.
On why she decided to write a book for kids about death
Caitlin Doughty: I’ve talked to adults about death as an advocate for death awareness for years, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a conversation that most of us should have had when we were about eight years old and never did. And the conversation we did have was about zombies or was about murder, was about these really awful deaths. … This was almost my opportunity to go back in time and talk to the inner child of most adults and say, “Hey, you probably have a lot of questions about the dead body and how it works, and what a cremation looks like and what an embalming looks like and what’s happening underneath the ground when grandma’s in a casket.”
On how to talk about death with children
Doughty: Don’t force it on them, but just let them know if anything comes up, if someone dies in a cartoon or in a movie or if … a friend’s parent at school dies, … just reinforce, “Hey, do you have any questions about that? Have you thought about that? Oh, you saw that? We saw it. We found that bird that was dead. Do you have any questions about that?” And just again, reinforce that you are a resource for them, because so often children suffer in silence, and they read the room so emotionally well and they know that their parents are afraid of it themselves. … So if you just show them, “Hey, I am ready to talk about this when you are. I’m an open book.” … If you have that sort of destigmatization of the idea of talking about death, you’re gonna have a child that feels comfortable coming to you when something gets hard, or tough or scary.
On finding fulfillment as a funeral director
Doughty: If I’m helping a family through the hardest part of their life and they are grateful to me, I can be happy with that. I can feel joy and accomplishment in my job. My job is not to take on their grief and to meet them where their grief is. They have family, they have a community. They have people who do that for them. They don’t need a funeral director’s prime responsibility to be “I am so sad with you.” They need my responsibility to be “I am competent. I know exactly how to file this death certificate. I know exactly how to get what you want. I know how to tell you your rights as a family. I know how to save you money. I know how to hold this space for you.” And if I can do that, I can leave at the end of the day feeling good about myself.
On industry shifts in how we think about death
Doughty: There’s something called the death positive movement that I am a part of that says, “Hey, family should know their rights.” We should be more aware of natural options. We should be more aware of less expensive options. … You don’t have to embalm. You don’t have to choose a big vault and a big, heavy casket. You can choose something called green burial, which is just a simple hole in the ground and the body right in the ground. You can price shop for funerals. It’s not cruel to mom to check out the different prices because they’ve done studies that funeral homes just across the street from each other … can cost thousands of dollars in difference for two similar services. So we need to be more engaged with death, and we need to understand that funeral homes aren’t necessarily the experts. Our families are the experts.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.