An interview with Caitlin Doughty
Mortician Caitlin Doughty believes that it is time to change the way U.S. culture deals with death. She is founder of the Order of the Good Death, creator of “Ask a Mortician” webseries, and best-selling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. She took the time to talk to us about women in death care, feminism, the patriarchy, and Becker.
Q: Do you consider working with the dead a feminist act?
A: Yes, absolutely. While I don’t consider it an inherently feminist act, the historical context of death care in the United States makes it one. Men took death from women. For most of human history, and certainly during the 18th and early 19th century in the United States, death was the purview of women. When someone died in the home, women were responsible for preparing a dead body for the grave by bathing, anointing, and dressing the body. After the Civil War, however, men who had been embalming soldiers’ bodies during the war wanted to continue embalming for money and the patriarchal, capitalist professionalization of death care emerged. All of a sudden, morticians who specialized in embalming loudly proclaimed that to make dead bodies safe to be around, they need to be embalmed and sanitized. This is bad science. A dead body is not immediately dangerous and it does not need to be sanitized to be safe. How women handled dead bodies for hundreds of years before men began to replace a corpse’s fluids with preservatives was perfectly safe. It became, however, normative practice for morticians to remove a body from the home immediately, and then disinfect, treat, and make the corpse beautiful before briefly displaying the body for the family at a funeral parlor. Male funeral directors and morticians began to line their pockets by promoting the sanitization and professionalization of death care. Men denied women entry to the funeral industry and consistently told women that it was not legal or safe to take care of the dead the way that women had done so for generations.
The alternative death industry that I work in today, where we talk about doing green or natural funerals and home funerals, is dominated by women. The movement that I founded, Death Positive, is also run by women. We are not specifically a by-women-for-women organization, but it so happens that the bulk of our leadership is made up of female or female identified people. I think that the reason for that is that there is real power and connection that comes with being able to take care of the dead, and many women feel as though that is missing from their lives. Women are beginning to reclaim what was taken from them, which is a strong feminist act. Furthermore, women are much more willing than men to leave the body unembalmed, to not put makeup on it or dress it up, and bury it naturally in a cemetery so that it can decompose, as opposed to trying to preserve or cremate the body. This uncontrolled decomposition is chaotic and unruly, and it is something that women are seeking. They don’t feel that the dead body is something that needs to be controlled, and this connects to broader feminist movements we are seeing today. It is an affront to the historically male conception of what a dead body should be like: controlled, sanitized, and made pretty for display. The mainstream funeral industry, which is dominated by men, can’t imagine not removing dead bodies from the home and immediately sanitizing them. They ask ‘why would you ever want an unembalmed corpse in your home?’ They can’t envision not having control over dead bodies, just as many men cannot imagine not having control over women’s bodies.
This uncontrolled decomposition is chaotic and unruly, and it is something that women are seeking. They don’t feel that the dead body is something that needs to be controlled, and this connects to broader feminist movements we are seeing today.
Q: Do you have any insights into how Becker’s work can specifically shed light on the patriarchy or the feminist implications of ending our estrangement to dead bodies?
A: Yes, the death industry, which again is set up by men, is structured so that now if anyone is going to see a dead body at all it is very rare for it to be a natural, unembalmed body. If you are not seeing real dead bodies, there is no proof that death is a reality. You hear about death, you know that people disappear, but you don’t have the physical evidence of death that previously confronted people throughout human history. So, if we think about how people structure their lives through the Becker framework, such as hero projects, how does this shift when people actually spend time with a natural, unembalmed, dead body? What happens when death is a reality? This is something that I have always been interested in from the first time I read Becker many years ago. When the body is aestheticized as this threatening, distant object, man cannot understand it so he is either going to hyper-sanitize the corpse or he is going to make it disappear by burning it. We see, however, all of these women in the alternative funeral industry telling us that it okay to see a natural, dead body. After a death, when we keep the dead body in the home, go out and dig the grave with our own hands, place the shrouded body in the grave and place the dirt onto the body, allowing it to decompose beneath the earth, what we are saying is, “ we accept death as a reality, and we would like to engage with it.” The women who advocate for natural home burials are inviting the exact conversation that Becker started. We are saying that we believe our knowledge and relationship with death is fundamentally influencing our lives. We are drawn to having a deeper relationship with the corpse because it is our locus of access to death. Death Positive is not an academic movement, and the reason for that is that the site of the movement is the corpse. For a lot of women, that is the vehicle that they are using to continue the discussions that Becker started.
The women who advocate for natural home burials are inviting the exact conversation that Becker started. We are saying that we believe our knowledge and relationship with death is fundamentally influencing our lives.