Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Less than a year after donning my corpse-colored glasses, I went from thinking it was a little bizarre that we don’t see dead bodies anymore, to believing that their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world.”
After taking an undergraduate degree in medieval history, Caitlin Doughty wasn’t really sure what to do with her life. She had decided she wasn’t cut out for academia, but wanted a career that would allow her to continue pursuing her interest in death rites and imagery. She ended up taking a job as a crematory operator in Oakland, California, where she was responsible for transmuting human remains into ash, as well as the occasional run to pick up the body of someone who had died at home. Through this work, she realized that people who had questions about what happened to their loved ones after they died truly appreciated it when she was extremely honest. This led her to found the web series Ask a Mortician for the public, and the Order of the Good Death, for like-minded funerary professionals, thus becoming the chief advocate for improving the relationship people have mortality, and making death her life’s work.
Doughty’s specialty is straight talk, with no sugar-coating, though she definitely has a (dark) sense of humour. Her memoir is an informative look behind the scenes of the funeral industry, and also provides some context about historical death practices, and the funeral rites of other cultures. She discusses Tibetan sky burials, Egyptian mummification, and Wari’ funerary cannibalism. She knowledgably breaks down the difference between Egyptian mummification (belief in the need for a body in the afterlife) and modern embalming (fear of decay). She is honest about the parts of her job that were difficult for her, such as the time she had to shave the hair of a dead toddler so that the locks could be returned to the parents before the child was cremated. However, most of her anxieties revolve around a fear of offending the living families, rather than typical anxieties about the dead. She once wore a red dress to work on a day when a Chinese family was coming in to witness a cremation, only to be berated by the family for the culturally insensitive colour choice.
While interesting and informative, this memoir is also unbalanced. Doughty spends 180 pages (ARC edition) on her first year at Westwinds Cremation & Burial, but only 50 pages on her time at mortuary school, her second job in the funeral industry, and the creation of Ask a Mortician and the Order of the Good Death. It is a decent memoir of Doughty’s time as a crematory operator, but it is not the best manifesto for her vision of promoting a better relationship with death and mortality. It is clear that Doughty thinks our relationship with death (which seems to consist mostly of denial) is unhealthy, but she has little evidence beyond her personal experiences. The only mention of psychology in the entire book comes in the epilogue, where she lists seven reasons humans fear dying, from a 1961 paper published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. The list of sources at the end of the book is strong on history, but reveals her neglect to really explore the psychological implications of her argument. The fact that our ancestors cared for the bodies of their own dead seems to be her primary argument for returning to the practice.
Doughty’s criticisms of the funeral industry primarily have to do with the way most people are distanced from death by allowing their family members to die in the hospital rather than at home, and then handing the corpses over to an undertaker rather than preparing the bodies for burial themselves. As a result, they are never faced with the realities of death and decay. There is little discussion of the environment impacts of our current funeral practices, though she does mention that cremating one body is about the energy equivalent of a five hundred mile car trip. She also briefly mentions that embalmers suffer from a higher risk of leukemia, likely due to the chemicals (mainly formaldehyde and alcohol) that they use to preserve the dead. Overall, however, she is focused on the need to witness death and dying in order to understand and come to terms with it.
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