Caitlin Doughty says she was a “morbid” child growing up.
So when she landed a job at a crematory in Oakland, California, at age 22, she became even more fascinated by death.
“I suddenly was exposed to the reality of death in America and what goes on behind the scenes,” she says. “And instead of being horrified by it, all I wanted to do was tell people about it and let people know what would happen to their mother when she was cremated or buried or embalmed.”
Now, the mortician and funeral director has released a new book, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death,” that answers a vast array of questions from mummifying bodies to dying on a plane.
Doughty, who hosts a YouTube series called “Ask A Mortician,” believes that by learning and understanding death and the dead human body, we can overcome our fears and ultimately embrace an inevitable end.
Death is terrifying, she admits. But if a loved one dies, she suggests forgoing the cakey makeup and the chemical preservations. Facing death directly, especially at a traditional wake, Doughty says, can be a positive step toward navigating your new reality.
What happens if you die on an airplane?
Buckle up for this one: Doughty says most commercial flights will leave the dead body in the person’s assigned seat because they have nowhere to put it.
“I had always assumed that there was some protocol of OK, someone dies on a plane, it's unavoidable. They wrap them up. They put them in the back galley. They have some sort of secret compartment. That's not true. Often they will just leave the person in their seat and if the airplane is overbooked, as so many airplanes are and there's no additional seats, you may end up just continuing to sit next to this dead person that you do not know for the remainder of the flight. It feels like a coffin already when you're flying, and now it could become a literal coffin because you have to sit next to a dead body, which blew my mind.”
Will my pet eat my body when I die?
Yes, Doughty says. Yes they will.
“The reality is that they will eventually. These are animals. Cats share a huge percentage of their DNA with lions and they will eat you if they do not have access to other food. And they'll usually go for the softer parts of your body — your lips or eyelids — because they're easy access, and then eventually, they wouldn't go for your eyeballs first, but they might eventually get to your eyeballs. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Obviously we don't want you to end up in that situation when you die, but you're creating new life. You eat meat in your life, and now an animal is eating you when you die. I don't think it's that far away from the cycle of life that we should be a part of.”
Can a dead body be claimed as property in the U.S.?
“That's a very difficult question. In America, they're called something like quasi property and what that means is that nobody truly owns a dead body. The person who is the next of kin, meaning the wife or the son or whoever is closest to the dead person, can make all the decisions for the dead body, but nobody truly owns it. And it's in the public interest to, or allegedly in the public interest, to bury a body in a respectful manner [and/or] cremate a body in a respectful manner.”
Do people actually request to taxidermy or deflesh their loved ones?
Yes — in fact, Doughty says this is not an uncommon request.
“Oh, if you knew how often I got that question, ‘Well why can't I prop dad up in the corner or taxidermy him?’ And the reason is because yes, you're in charge of making decisions for your dad when he dies, but it's in a very narrow legal range of options — cremation, burial or donation to science. There's no deflesh and keep his skull on the mantelpiece or taxidermy him or give him a Viking funeral. Those just aren't on the list of state or mandated options for dad's dead body.”
Can I cremate a body with a pacemaker?
No — the medical device can act like a small bomb in the cremation oven. It can, and should, be removed beforehand, Doughty says.
“That's actually one of our biggest questions that we ask on our cremation forum is did mom have a pacemaker? Because if it's not removed, the batteries that are inside of it contains so much compressed energy that once they're met with the 1,800-degree flames of the cremation machine, they do explode. And as a former crematory operator, I would open the door of the cremation machine to watch the cremation process as it was happening, maybe move the body around to make it more efficient. And if I happened to be doing that and there's a pacemaker in there that we didn't catch, that could explode and potentially be very harmful for me or just the inside of the machine.”
Do Viking funerals work?
Not really. Doughty says many of the Viking funerals you see on TV — cue “Game of Thrones” — aren’t the real deal.
“The reality is that if you just had a simple wooden canoe or boat and you put a body on it and you set the whole thing on fire, the boat and the wood in the boat is going to cremate much faster than the dead body. So what you're going to have is a half-charred dead body just bobbing around in a municipal waterway somewhere, which is not your romantic idea of a complete Viking cremation. So it's just not logistically possible nor is it the actual historical reality.”
Book Excerpt: 'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death'
By Caitlin Doughty
Before We Begin
Oh, hey. It’s me, Caitlin. You know, the mortician from the internet. Or that death expert from NPR. Or the weird aunt who gave you a box of Froot Loops and a framed photo of Prince for your birthday. I’m many things to many people.
What is this book?
It’s pretty simple. I collected some of the most distinctive, delightful questions I’ve been asked about death, and then I answered them. It’s not rocket science, my friends!
(Note: some of it is, in fact, rocket science. See “What would happen to an astronaut body in space?”)
Why are people asking you all these death questions?
Well, again, I’m a mortician, and I’m willing to answer strange questions. I’ve worked at a crematory, gone to school for embalming, traveled the world to research death customs, and opened a funeral home. Plus, I’m obsessed with corpses. Not in a weird way or anything
I’ve also given talks all over the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand on the wonders of death. My favorite part of these events is the Q & A. That’s when I get to hear people’s deep fascination with decaying bodies, head wounds, bones, embalming, funeral pyres—the works.
All death questions are good death questions, but the most direct and most provocative questions come from kids. (Parents: take note.) Before I started holding death Q & As, I imagined kids would have innocent questions, saintly and pure.
Young people were braver and often more perceptive than the adults. And they weren’t shy about guts and gore. They wondered about their dead parakeet’s everlasting soul, but really they wanted to know how fast the parakeet was putrefying in the shoebox under the maple
That’s why all the questions in this book come from 100 percent ethically sourced, free-range, organic children.
Isn’t all this a little morbid?
Here’s the deal: It’s normal to be curious about death. But as people grow up, they internalize this idea that wondering about death is “morbid” or “weird.” They grow scared, and criticize other people’s interest in the topic to keep from having to confront death themselves.
This is a problem. Most people in our culture are death illiterate, which makes them even more afraid. If you know what’s in a bottle of embalming fluid, or what a coroner does, or the definition of a catacomb, you’re already more knowledgeable than the majority of your fellow mortals.
To be fair, death is hard! We love someone and then they die. It feels unfair. Sometimes death can be violent, sudden, and unbearably sad. But it’s also reality, and reality doesn’t change just because you don’t like it.
We can’t make death fun, but we can make learning about death fun. Death is science and history, art and literature. It bridges every culture and unites the whole of humanity!
Many people, including me, believe that we can control some of our fears by embracing death, learning about it, and asking as many questions as possible.
In that case, when I die, will my cat eat my eyeballs?
Great question. Let’s get started.
Reprinted from WILL MY CAT EAT MY EYEBALLS? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death. Copyright (c) 2019 by copyright holder. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on September 10, 2019.