Google tells me that the definition of putrefaction is
- n. the process of decay or rotting in a body or other organic matter
It sounds so simple, so uninhibited: the process of decay or rotting. There’s no emotional baggage in that. Putrefaction: a noun.
But as Caitlin Doughty explains in her book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, it is precisely that emotional baggage that prevents us from allowing the natural process of decomposition to happen.
Doughty, who shares my family name (Doute, though there are many alternate spellings), is a twentysomething woman fascinated with death and dying; more specifically, the way we care for our dead within (and beyond) the funeral industry in America. Her book is a memoir, a story about the time she spent working at a crematorium in San Francisco, and an exploration of what she calls “the good death,” a death that isn’t sanitized, sterilized, and industrialized, but rather natural (an ironic term, to be explained later), intimate, and peaceful.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes makes a compelling argument against contemporary Western funeral practices. Doughty contrasts the American way of embalming the body to prepare it for viewing by making it look as “natural” (i.e.: “lifelike) as possible with the cannibalistic practices of the Wari’ in Brazil (pre-1960’s); the Egyptians who did embalm but for religious reasons, not marketing and consumerism; and Tibetans, who allow the body to be eaten by vultures, carried off into the sky to nourish other creatures. Doughty explains that there is a fear of fragmentation, and ultimately great discomfort with death itself, that drives us to preserve the body in the way that we do.
She traces this back to the mid-19th century, when the death industry in America was no more than a homegrown operation. Women cared for the dead (birth and death were women’s work) and coffins were fashioned by the family or by a cabinetmaker which were then carried by hand to nearby graves. As the population grew, bigger cities were able to support an actual industry, and so undertaking became a profession. Then came the Civil War, which created a need for rapid removal and transportation of the dead from the fields to their families: a perfect opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs. Over time, the embalmer evolved from a job nobody wanted (as it supposedly required no special skills, and let’s be fair, it’s dirty work) to a medical specialty thanks to the marketing efforts of embalming chemical manufacturers. Embalming, as it is currently practiced, is based on a constructed narrative: corpses carry disease (they don’t), the public needs to be protected (they don’t), and preparing the dead for viewing allows the family one last “memory picture” (also not a necessity, but one we gladly buy into because we’re terrified of our own mortality).
Doughty eventually leaves her job at the crematorium and chooses to attend mortuary school so that she can learn everything there is to know from an insider’s perspective, starting with instruction: how mortuary science is taught. This is where we’re reminded that Doughty’s book is a memoir: she introduces Luke, a long-time friend she decides she is in love with. This detail seemed a little erroneous (I may have rolled my eyes), but I suppose a good love interest helps sales. To be fair, Doughty’s feelings for Luke do push the boundaries of her own mental well-being, much to her surprise, and that matters.
After graduation, Doughty holds down a job as a driver for a crematory, picking up dead bodies and bringing them back, which gives her plenty of time to think about what she calls “death values.” She begins publishing her writing on the Internet under the name “The Order of the Good Death.” The Order of the Good Death is now a fully-functioning organization (and website) that connects academics, artists, and (medical?) practitioners interested in death and dying, it hosts an annual event called Death Salon, and Doughty also runs Undertaking LA, an alternative funeral service that places control back in the hands of the families of the dead. She advocates for death acceptance instead of death phobia, and contends,
We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choices means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes (234).
What was most striking to me about Doughty’s book was her honesty. In the last chapter, we learn that her grandmother dies, and the funeral arrangements are in Doughty’s hands. However, her grandmother doesn’t receive the care Doughty encourages us to seek out instead of traditional embalming, viewing, and burial; in fact, of her grandmother’s viewing she says “I couldn’t believe I had let my own grandmother’s body fall victim to the postmortem tortures I was fighting against. It demonstrated just how strong a hold the mortuary industry has over our way of death” (231). My dad died last December, and though I had received a copy of this book before his death, I hadn’t picked it up until these last few weeks. My dad was cremated, but I was very much removed from the process – in fact, my sister and I were both gone when he died. We had been at his side every day for the six days he was in and out of consciousness at home in his living room, going home to sleep, and returning in the morning with coffee to wait and watch, to change his diaper, adjust his pillow, wipe his mouth, and to listen to his slow breathing. On the day he died, my stepmom suggested that we take the day off, and my sister and I both went out to the mall, separately, not knowing where the other was headed. I was in the Gap store when my phone rang and my stepsister managed to choke out the words “he’s gone.” I firmly believe that he waited until my sister and I were far enough away to let go; he was always very private, watering down his medical diagnoses as if he was explaining them to a child, and shooing us away when his health declined. I chose not to come to the house immediately. I drove home and sat in my living room in a daze, I didn’t want to see them take his body away, and I’m not sure if this was for my own sake (it’s not like the last time I saw him he had looked much different, he was sick for a long time) or because I wanted to be alone, but I like to think the latter. I did go to the house after he was gone, and I stood there holding a newborn baby in the very spot his body took its last breath, rocking her and staring at a half-eaten McDonalds cheeseburger that I had picked up out of desperation on the way over. It was comforting to know that Doughty also felt regret over how her grandmother’s death was handled. In the time that has passed, I wish that I would have been able to hold his hand through the very end, I wish that I could have been a part of the entire process, but my dad was a stubborn man.
It does not bother me to think about my dad’s corpse. It does not phase me to imagine his body decomposing (it isn’t, because he was cremated, but I do like to imagine what might have been, as strange as that may sound). I would have loved to be the one to push the button to begin his cremation, but until I read Doughty’s book, I didn’t know that was an option. I, like many of the families Doughty mentions, believed in the time-sensitive response to death presented by police and medical professionals: get the body out to the morgue as soon as possible, and let them handle it. Modern life has distanced us from so many opportunities for intimacy; those days I spent caring for my dad as he inched closer to death were some of the most beautiful, most humane moments of my entire life, and I will forever be thankful to have shared that with him. I think my dad and Caitlin Doughty would have understood one another. They spoke a common language. Doughty says that “[a] culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death” (232), and I agree. My dad never denied his own death. He certainly denied his condition, but it wasn’t for fear of dying, I don’t think. It was his desire to be left alone, to let his decisions play out, to remove the burden of artificial practice from our shoulders as his caregivers. And while his death was by no means “good,” in the way we like to imagine pain-free, dying-while-you’re-asleep, life-work-complete kind of “good,” it was on his terms. And that’s worth something.
Doughty’s book brought me into what I felt I had missed out on in my own experiences with death. She managed to enter the Emerald Castle and pull back the curtain on a profit-driven industry that cares not for the dead body, not for the family, nor even for death itself, but for making a buck out of vulnerability and carrying on that tradition uncritically simply because we’ve all bought into it. Doughty’s book is one I will recommend to everyone that crosses my path. It will be shelved along with my other favorites, and I will be looking for more to read on this topic. In fact, I’ve even contacted the Cleveland Memorial Society to ask if I can sit in on a talk she’s giving there in November. The emotional baggage we carry prevents us from seeing death for what it is, and Doughty’s book is an invitation to set it aside and confront death head on, in all its rotting glory.
You can pledge to be “death positive and join The Order of the Good Death by clicking here.