Caitlin Doughty has been on the phone a lot lately, fighting with the California Cemetery & Funeral Bureau about what she can and cannot do with a corpse. A licensed mortician by trade, she's trying to start her own mortuary, or something like it.
“Determining the new model will have a lot to do with figuring out what's legally allowed,” she says. “Ideally I would go into families' homes and teach them how to take care of their own dead body – how to wash it, how to make sure its eyes stay closed, how to transfer it from bed to a casket – everything they need to know so that when the time comes, they could do it without me.”
With blunt, black Bettie Page bangs and cheerful blue eyes, Doughty, 29, looks more like a Disney princess than the new face of death, and that's at least part of what makes her message so palatable.
For the last three years, Doughty has helmed the growing “death acceptance” movement, which seeks to overhaul the way in which Western society confronts death, favoring natural burial over embalming, eliminating our death euphemisms and, yes, taking a more active role in burying our dead.
In early 2011, she founded the Order of the Good Death, a web forum to promote the open discussion of death. Later that year Doughty launched Ask a Mortician, a web series in which she addresses topics such as decomposition, embalming and, prompted by the death of Whitney Houston, what happens to a body that's left in warm water for an extended period of time.
Her initial thought was this: “If I send out an essay or a blog that's, like, 'Here's how you grind the bones after a cremation,' some people are going to look at it, but most people aren't going to be willing to dive into that rabbit hole. But if they see a young girl who's, like, 'Heeeeyyy guys! Do you wanna know how to grind the bones after a cremation?'?” she says in a cartoonlike, yuk-yuk voice, “it makes it a little bit easier to take in the information.”
And she was right. The first Ask a Mortician video got picked up by Jezebel on day one, garnering more than 100,000 views on YouTube and a surge of interest in the Order of the Good Death.
Since then, Doughty has made almost 30 more Ask a Mortician videos; written a book about her first year in the death industry; co-founded Death Salon, a live incarnation of the Order of the Good Death in the style of an 18th-century salon; and begun working out the details of her mortuary business, which she plans to launch this year – provided she doesn't get stuck in what she calls “the logistical bullshittery” of the state Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.
Still, Doughty is reluctant to claim ownership of the movement. She considers her main job to be aestheticizing and shaping it into something for public consumption. She sees her cheerful morbidity as the early sell, the gateway drug to the Order's extensive and growing portfolio of projects – one member has trained a strain of edible mushrooms to decompose, filter and remove toxins from human tissue; another has designed a line of biodegradable shrouds.
“My job is curation,” she says, “forming these pieces into something that resembles something larger. And that convinces people to cover it, which convinces them to be interested and involved. I think that's what it takes for people to start taking it seriously.”