25 May, 2015Issue 28.3North AmericaPolitics & Society

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How to Take Care of the Dead

Jennifer Rushworth

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
Caitlin Doughty
W.W. Norton and Company
272 pages
ISBN: 9780393240238


One of Caitlin Doughty’s responsibilities during her time at Westwind Cremation & Burial was to collect the bodies of dead babies from hospital in order to take them away for cremation. Looking back at her first experience of this unenviable task, Doughty remarks on how difficult she found approaching various hospital staff members with appropriate decorum: “A delicate balance is required: happy but not too happy.” This balance is, in fact, one that subtends the whole book. Despite the subject matter (death and the proper disposal of dead bodies), readers expect to be rewarded for their bravery in broaching such a text with a certain degree of happiness and humour in the telling of the tale. Yet too much happiness, and one starts to feel distinctly uneasy, suspicious even of the author’s motives and involvement in the narrative.

This is a strange book, which draws on a number of different disciplines in order to address the question of how we have in the past—and how we might in the future—take care of our dead. Insights from anthropology, history, sociology, and philosophy are skilfully blended into the autobiographical narrative of day-to-day life in a mortuary. Doughty’s background is in medieval history, and this background is put to good use in contextualising the different ways in which different societies have at different times dealt practically with their dead. While Doughty engages with classic texts on the history of death (most notably those of Philippe Ariès and Caroline Walker Bynum), the book which comes closest to her project is explicitly acknowledged to be Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963). In this respect, Doughty’s book is, above all else, a manifesto for a new relationship with death and the dead, following in the spirit, if not the letter, of Mitford’s earlier tract.

Doughty passionately believes that our society (by which she means both America and the UK) has gone wildly astray in its thinking—or rather, refusal to think—about death. She considers this culture of denial to be pernicious and the source of our unhealthy, uncomfortable, phobia-ridden relationship with our own mortality and that of others. Conversely, Doughty believes that it is possible to have a healthy, relaxed relationship with death, by which she means a direct, hands-on confrontation with the reality of breathing one’s last and what comes after. At its most extreme, our refusal to acknowledge that we will one day go the way of all flesh has led, at least in America, to the possibility of ordering a cremation for your loved (or not so loved) one online, with collection direct from the hospital and delivery of the ashes via postal service, thus avoiding any need for direct contact with the deceased. Seemingly, this type of service is likely to be the future of the funeral industry, unless we listen to Doughty’s warning cry before it is too late.

As a manifesto, Doughty’s narrative cannot be considered to be an objective view of typical cremation practices in America, since she allows her (admittedly hard-won) judgements to infringe on her narrative. One of the most gruesome parts of the book is a lengthy description of embalming, an expensive and invasive process which is a particular target of Doughty’s critique of all that is wrong with the funeral industry. One suspects that this description is deliberately designed to be repulsive, in order to add weight to Doughty’s case. Yet regardless of bias, the author does put her intimate knowledge of the trade to good use in showing how what we consider to be dignified and appropriate (making sure granny has a peaceful smile for a final viewing by the family) is anything but behind the scenes. Doughty is here asking important questions about why we bother to put make-up (and worse) on dead bodies, and what this says about our death-denying culture as a society. She is also reclaiming a more “natural” approach to death, although nature is, naturally, an impossibly loaded term.

In such matters, Doughty may at times come across as overly critical and even unsympathetic. On the one hand, she refuses to pass judgement on other cultures, including the cannibalism of the Brazilian Wari’ or Tibetans who leave their dead bodies out for vultures to feed on. Such stories are invoked to demonstrate that there are innumerable different and equally valid ways of disposing of the dead besides those commonly sanctioned by Western societies, that is, traditional burial or cremation. On the other hand, however, the author is extremely quick to criticise her own culture, and she accords the American way of death (to borrow Mitford’s words) no such leniency or forgiveness. Cultural relativism does not prevent—and may even motivate—Doughty’s attack on her own culture.

Doughty wants a deeper engagement with death at all levels of society, and hopes for practical results. This book is calling for nothing short of a revolution in both societal attitudes towards death and the norms of disposal of dead bodies established by funeral professionals. Importantly, Doughty’s revolution or revolt is, as etymological soundings of these words teach us, partly a turning back. Doughty wants to go back to a time when dead bodies were kept in the home and prepared for burial or cremation by family members. This wish might be liable to the accusation of problematic nostalgia for a grim past, save that Doughty knows full well what dead bodies look, feel, and smell like. Indeed, these are sensations with which the author wants us all to be more familiar.

On a practical level, this book raises two fundamental questions, one in a deliberate fashion and the other as a probably unwanted corollary of the first. The first question is simply: what is Doughty’s ideal for disposal of the dead? Or, to put the question in the more medieval framework of Doughty’s own Order of the Good Death (http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/), what is a good death? In fact, the increasingly fashionable and eco-friendly option of woodland burial is a method that Doughty strongly endorses. Given this approval, her ideals seem reassuringly achievable and almost mainstream. Yet there is more: Doughty wants new legislation to “allow not only for more natural burials but also open-air pyres and grounds where bodies can be laid out in the open and consumed by nature.” In this respect, Doughty is truly arguing for more choice (and not in the sense of the limited options at present as to whether you want a coffin made of wicker or maple).

The second question is, perhaps, unkind but important: why should we care what Doughty thinks? She certainly has much more experience than most of the funeral industry, as well as an impressive awareness of the historical and cultural specificities of care for the dead. Her writing is also friendly and non-intimidating, in a way that is designed to persuade without being overly curmudgeonly. Yet Doughty’s story is that of an intensely personal journey which may not, in the end, be safely applicable to a wider public. Doughty finds that intimate knowledge of death and the dead defeats her fear of departing this life, and so wants everyone else to share in this journey towards freedom from necrophobia. However, one wonders whether this same journey might not provoke in others wildly differing reactions, which may have the opposite effect of that intended by the well-intentioned author. Doughty’s assertion in her prefatory author’s note that “ignorance is not bliss, only a deeper kind of terror” is open to debate. The assumption that the only way to cure our fear of death is to confront it head-on may cause more problems than it solves for those not endowed with Doughty’s particular mind-set and stamina. In other words, is Doughty happy or too happy? Importantly, in order to remain respectful, relevant, and helpful, this book must offer only “the chance to face our own mortality,” rather than anything more coercive or direct.

Ultimately, then, this is an important book in its mission to debunk some of the myths about dead bodies that are typically promoted by the funeral industry in order to promote its trade: no, dead bodies are not dangerous, contagious, or to be feared; yes, you do have a choice as to how you take care of the dead. It is also undeniably informative, if occasionally in a graphic or even prurient way. Yet the question of readership remains a particularly vexed one for a book that ambitiously wishes to change attitudes and habits across Western society. Weirdly and worryingly, I eventually found this book at the back of the Norrington Room in Blackwell’s, under the section “bereavement counselling.” This is, of course, the last book you would want to read if you were bereaved (and especially were you to have just had your loved one embalmed and cremated). For anyone else who is feeling in a particularly stable and neutral place about mortality (if such a place exists), this book is, nonetheless, informative, and surprising, though not, probably, recommended for bedtime reading.

Jennifer Rushworth is a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford.