No bones about it, you’re gonna die! You and everyone you love will wither away into nothingness; plan on it! Of course, this fact isn’t news to anyone, but it’s still a reality most people — particularly those in the Western world — don’t like thinking about too much.
And this is a grave mistake. We should be eager to talk about death. Now, I’m not saying that death needs to raise our spirits or anything, but why should we be afraid to talk about what happens once we shuffle off our mortal coils?
Killer puns aside, this is an important conversation to have. Even in a culture saturated with depictions of death and dying, fear and discomfort with death is normal, even expected. But that leaves many bodies-to-be with questions they’re either too afraid to ask, or have never even thought about asking. You know the sorts of questions I’m talking about. We all have the occasional morbid thought, like “What happens to the rest of the ashes of a cremated body?” “What does a decomposing body look like?” Or, “Would my dog eat my dead body?”
These corpse-y curiosities are worthy of answers. But our death-aversion manifests in harmful ways. Death-phobia often hampers our ability to cope with loss in a healthy way, making it harder to confront difficult truths. And not doing things like making a “death plan” (instructions for our loved ones on how we want our remains disposed of) can put an unnecessary burden on those we leave behind.
So I’m here to convince you to embrace death. For me, that journey started with a YouTube video about a pope corpse.
The video began with a woman in her thirties dressed in robes and a paper mitre (the pope hat) interrogating a taxidermied ferret also dressed up as a pope. This (the human, not the ferret) was Caitlin Doughty, Los Angeles-based mortician and founder of The Order of the Good Death, an organization that promotes death positivity. Doughty, in her own words, “dreamed of living in a culture with a more open, honest engagement with death … with a better funeral industry, where the family could be involved with the process, and the dead weren’t hidden behind closed doors (or closed vans).”
As seen in her videos, Doughty knows how to put the fun back into funeral. Tinged with a unique, dorky sense of humor, her YouTube channel has hundreds of videos with topics ranging from cremated breast implants to racial disparities facing the funeral industry.
Her work has also appeared on the New York Times bestseller’s list: her memoir, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” documents her first six years working in a crematorium, preparing bodies for a loud, metallic inferno. In “From Here to Eternity,” Doughty discusses the death practices of other cultures, and what we could stand to learn from them.
Her book “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” frankly answers death-questions by children, starting a much-needed conversation with a group of creatures that understand way more than what we give them credit for. Across all of these, Doughty approaches death with humor. She compares shaving your first corpse to losing your virginity, she describes the colors your body turns as it decays and she explores the ever-evolving funeral industry in Japan.
All of this death talk can be a bit jarring, but the hard truths her novels confront are necessary. For example, bodies are often embalmed in America in order to “keep them from decaying” or to “sanitize” them. But the truth is, bodies aren’t even dangerous or unclean to begin with. Embalming isn’t necessary or required by law.
“Sealed caskets” are another attempt to avoid confronting death. The caskets are marketed as being able to better “preserve” the body underground. In reality, such measures only speed up the process of decomposition due to the moisture and air pressure sealed within. Families who decide to embalm or use a sealed casket pay hundreds of dollars for unnecessary procedures.
Our efforts to run away from death only further divorce us from reality. In the end, as Doughty points out in her books, the funeral industry is built on capitalism and death-phobia. Caskets, burial vaults and embalming can potentially cost tens of thousands of dollars, and for what? All the family ends up with is a remarkably depersonalized experience.
Contrary to what you might think, you don’t actually need to hand over the corpse of a loved one to some Cryptkeeper-looking undertaker. In fact, you could take care of the body in your own home. It sounds frightening, but active involvement in burial or cremation preparation can be incredibly therapeutic.
A lot of other cultures do just this: In Japan, it’s common for family members to help separate bones of a cremated loved one and on one Indonesian island, actually living with the dead for months or even years is a custom. To an American, these actions seem unconscionable, but that may just be a reflection of how deathly afraid we are of dying.
Engaging in frank discussions about dying is necessary, and perhaps even more so in a time so rife with death and despair. You’re going to die one day. So will I.
But death doesn’t need to be as uncomfortable as it is to many now. The open and honest conversations I’ve had with others about post-death plans have given me a comforting certainty about life’s ultimate unknown. And I’m dead serious when I say that such comfort can feel life-saving.
Daily Arts Writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.