Transcript by Molly Benson.
Jini Palmer: (00:17) Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s Arts and Culture series. On September 16th, 2019 mortician and New York times bestselling author, Caitlin Doughty, came to our forum stage to address common misconceptions about corpses mixed with a scientific understanding of our body. Caitlin offered antidotes about what will happen to our bodies after we die and shared her book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death.
Caitlin Doughty: (00:53) Oh, whoa, Seattle. How are you? Oh, this is interesting, I can’t see you at all, you’re entirely black. It’s like looking into my own soul. So I love talking in Seattle. I often tell people that Seattle and Portland are some of my favorite places to give talks. Don’t tell the east coast that where I just came from. My last talk at the Mütter museum in Philadelphia, not sure if any of you saw this online. Yes. Cheers for the Mütter museum. Full credit to the Mütter Museum as an institution. But they have this big beautiful old room in the Mütter that has this, not a stanchion, but like a thing almost like this stage, but it’s old antique chairs that almost look like you would come forth to beg the king for more grain reserves. And I walked up to the top just because when I give talks I’m like, “Hey.” And as I was coming down, I just fell off. Full on, fell off. And landed with full force on these beautiful nails that I got done specifically for tour. So just smashed the nails. But, fortunately, this woman in Philadelphia gave me a single black statement nail on my middle finger, which I have found works for many situations where I need my middle finger to be painted black to that. Basically what I’m saying is that if I manage to not fall off the stage tonight, I’m already doing well. So we start the bar low.
I’m going to talk about three things tonight or I should say do three things tonight. The first thing is tell you a little story about my morbid childhood. Second thing is I’m going to read one quick chapter from my new book. And the third thing is I’m going to do a Q&A. Your Q’s, my A’s. Which is my favorite part anyway.
So first, the story about my morbid childhood and really a celebration of morbid childhood. So the first time that I was ever profiled anywhere was in Huffington Post in 2012 and the reporter actually called my mother to do an interview. And the quote my mother gave him was in regard to my father and I, or her father, nope, my father and her, “We came to find out that she was interested in death and we had never seen the signs.” Which is kind of like an anti-drug commercial from the 1990s like she just was sitting on the couch eating these potato chips but we never suspected marijuana. But with all due respect to my very lovely mother, I think there were some signs. Starting with this reward, not reward, like an award thing that you give elementary school students, which is why millennials all need a lot of validation. “Like and subscribe”. But it said, ‘super job’ over an ice cream sundae ‘to Caitlin Doughty for’ and she had written in ‘a good witch story’. Couldn’t find that, don’t know what that was about.
Then I found a journal, a diary, from when I was in third grade, had a Hello Kitty on the front. There was only one entry in this diary, a sole entry and it said, “Dear diary, Today is Halloween. Finally it’s come.” Actually it said “Finly, it’s come.” I wasn’t really sure on the spelling yet. So this is the only evidence of my interior. It’s the only journal I kept as a child, only evidence of my internal thoughts, which I think was probably pretty right on. Keep in mind that I was born and raised in Hawaii, so I was truly torn between two worlds. I found this picture of me wearing aloha print shorts, like blue flower shorts with a bright blue tee shirt, but also Doc Martins and this same hair. And in the picture I’m leaning up against a chain link fence like, ‘Oh, it’s so hard to be so goth.’ But I was wearing like electric blue clothing.
I also used to go to several goth clubs in Hawaii. I would sneak out and go to goth fetish clubs, of which there were two on Oahu, my island, one called Flesh and one called The Dungeon. And I would go to those and I would dance, dance, dance, cloves, cloves, cloves, and then I would sleep in my car and the next morning I would go to my athletic activity, which was open ocean outrigger canoe paddling. Because I’m from Hawaii, I also went to a very strict episcopal, all-girls school. So uniforms, chapel, the whole deal. And we had to take Christianity classes every year. And in 10th grade, our big final project for Christianity was to write an essay on a character from the Bible, a big research paper on the character from the Bible. And I chose Satan.
[applause] Big cheer for Satan here. Okay, Seattle. I see and I approve. And I got an A-plus because I researched the crap out of Satan. I knew so much about Satan. And then, in the first of several ‘who let her do this?’ questions I have, I was made editor of my high school yearbook and that’s not the ‘who let her do this?’ question, I think I was good. I’m going to explain. So I was made editor and then who here remembers the band AFI? Okay. Alright. Some cheers, some hands. This all-girls private school, I themed the entire yearbook around the band AFI with flames coming up the cover. And when you opened up to the title page there was a picture of some of my classmates on the beach, their heads thrown back laughing. Except when I photoshopped flames coming up around them, it sort of looks like they’re writhing in hell a little bit as well.
And yes. And they let me do that. And when I look back on it and I looked at it to prepare for this tour, I looked at my old yearbook and it’s always very painful because it reminds me of that Ira Glass quote, which is the first couple of years that you’re making things, the things you make are not going to be very good. And this, truly an example of that, this yearbook. My second ‘who let her do that?’ question is when I finally made it off Hawaii to the mainland to go to college. And I was the manager of the student coffee shop at the University of Chicago called Uncle Joe’s. [audience cheers] Those are just my two friends from the University of Chicago. Hi guys. It was called Uncle Joe’s and, for some reason, they let me launch a school-wide renaming campaign for this coffee shop and then pick the replacement, which I decided to be Hallowed Grounds, which it’s still named to this day. So my legacy is strong. And then, of course, I majored in medieval history and went on to do my big, final research paper, my thesis paper on the late medieval witchcraft trials called, “In Our Image: The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory”. So, basically, demon babies. Needless to say, by the time I had moved to the Bay Area and was 23 and got my first job at a crematory, I think, sorry mom, there were some signs. There were maybe one or two signs that this might be a path that I was interested in. But I have to say when I started at the crematory, I don’t really think before I started that I thought this was going to be my life’s work. I think I thought it was going to be the kind of thing that I did and then when I was 47 and at a cocktail party, someone would be like, “Darling, do you know Caitlin worked at a crematorium? Isn’t that bizarre? Oh, Caitlin, tell us.” I have a lot of British friends apparently, when I’m older, and much classier. That’s still my goal for later in my life. It’s gonna start getting really classy here any second.
(10:24) And that was my idea but I fell in love with it. And mostly what I fell in love with was knowing what was going on behind the scenes, knowing that the public didn’t know a lot of these things and feeling like I was uniquely suited to translate this information to the public. And that’s basically what I’ve been doing for 12 years. And what I want to say about that is that I think that a lot of credit is given to the idea of a child and adolescent coming into a sexual awakening. But very little credit is given to the idea of a young child, eight, nine, coming into an awareness of their own mortality and all of the questions and confusions and desires that come with that. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this room in being somewhat of a morbid child. I gave you all that evidence, point A, point B, point C.
(11:26) But I think that I also feel incredibly lucky that I got to grow up and also be a morbid adult because I get to live in reality. I get to live with the knowledge that I will eventually die and I don’t have to be afraid to ask questions. And I don’t have to be afraid to say, “Yeah, I’m interested in the history and the science and the religion and the literature and the psychology around death.” And I just wanted to congratulate all of you in this room for also being the kind of morbid adults that could potentially teach morbid children that it’s okay to have those same kinds of questions. So that’s my little ode to you. And also a chance to tell about my Hello Kitty diary. Thank you.
(12:17) Okay, so the plan was to read. I’ve been reading a different little chapter in every city that I’ve gone to. I’m gonna let you pick tonight. I don’t know how this is going to go, but originally I was gonna do, what if I’m too tall to fit in a casket? But then someone said that I should do, “Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral?” because of the Scandinavian population of Seattle? Okay. All right. I think we just got our vote. Okay, “Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral”. Side note, that was the original title of this book, “Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral?” but I advocated hard for Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? because I feel like it’s more like “what?” And then you get ’em.
CD: (13:10) Did grandma want a Viking funeral? If so, your grandmother sounds rad and I wish I had known her but I’m afraid I have some terrible news. Not only is grandma dead, but Viking funerals, at least the Hollywood version of them, aren’t real. You’re picturing grandma, the fallen warrior, her shrouded body laid solemnly upon her wooden boat. Your aunts pushed the noble craft into the sea. Your mom draws her bow, a flaming arrow arcs through the sky, hits grandma and sets her alight. She burns as bright in death as she did in life. Alas, fake, fake, fakeity-fake. How can it be fake? It’s called a Viking funeral because, dah, that’s what the Vikings did. Well, no, the Vikings, everyone’s favorite medieval Scandinavian raiders and traders had diverse and interesting death rituals, but a flaming cremation boat wasn’t one of them. Here are a few rituals that did happen.
(14:14) Vikings performed cremations. On land. Sometimes the cremation pyre would be built inside stones that were outlined and stacked into the shape of a boat, which may be where this idea came from. If a dead person was especially important, their whole boat would be hauled up onto land and used as a coffin known as a ship or boat burial. But no flaming arrow cremation crews. As a warning, anytime you try to tactfully to bring up the historical inaccuracy of someone’s blazing boat corpse idea, you’ll be hearing from the Ahmad ibn Fadlan guy. The Ahmad ibn Fadlan guy is the person on the internet who insists that Hollywood versions of flaming boat cremations are real. A.I.F. guy spends a lot of time making this argument and he supports the case with writings of a man named Ahmad ibn Fadlan who was an Arab traveler and writer from the 10th century. He was known for documenting what he called the Rus, the Northern Germanic Vikings.
(15:19) Ibn Fadlan is a problematic historical source in part because he was a biased observer. For example, he thought the Vikings were “perfect physical specimens” but was openly hostile about their hygiene. His chronicles mentioned an elaborate cremation ritual the Rus performed for one of their chieftains. According to Ahmad ibn Fadlan, the Rus stored their chieftain in a temporary grave for 10 days. Because the chieftain was so important, his people pulled his entire long ship ashore and hauled it into the wooden platform. An older woman who was in charge of the ritual and was known as “the Angel of Death”— hold on, Ibn Fadlan, I want to hear more about this “Angel of Death” woman— made a bed for the chieftain on the boat. The chieftain was taken out of his grave redressed and placed on the bed with all his weapons around him. His relatives arrived with flaming torches and set the boat alight and the whole thing plus wooden platform burned along with him.
(16:19) Important, this all happens on land. Who knows how the whole rumor got started? The Vikings had elaborate cremations. They had boats. They just didn’t have cremation boats. I know what you’re thinking, “Okay, fine. So my death plan is little historically inaccurate. I wasn’t that into that Norse history anyway. Let’s go ahead with the flaming boat thing.” Not so fast, my post-mortem pyro. The reason that no culture has adopted the flaming boat funeral custom is because it doesn’t work. I’ve seen an open air funeral pyre. The first 15 minutes after the fire is lit are jaw-dropping. Smoke curls around the corpse and red hot flames shoot up from the body. You can see why Hollywood would say, “We love this fiery pyre scene but, stay with me, what if it were on a boat?”
(17:15) Here’s the thing. After those first 15 minutes of glorious flame, you still need several hours and a lot of wood to fully cremate that body. Your average canoe is between 16 and 17 feet. It could carry enough wood to start the pyre off but I have it on good authority, the cremation pyre people told me, that a full cremation requires over 40 cubic feet of wood. The fire has to reach 1200 degrees and stay there for two to three hours. You have to keep adding wood close to the body throughout the cremation, even stacked high with logs, a 16-foot Viking boat holds nowhere close to the amount of wood needed. The fire would most likely burn a hole in the boat before it got hot enough to burn the corpse. So the whole setup is still very inefficient. When the death boat burns out too quickly, where does that leave us? A half-charred body bobbing around your local municipal waterway.
(18:14) The historical romance would be ruined if grandma’s body washed up on shore during someone’s family picnic. I know this is bad news and I hate to be the mortician bringing all the bad news. So here are two things you can do instead. One, have grandma cremated in an ordinary cremation machine called a retort. You can watch grandma’s body be loaded into the machine and blast Norse battle chants while you press the button to start the flames. This is called a witness cremation. Then you can take her cremated remains and put them on a tiny Viking boat and set that on fire, sending it out into a body of water. As the wee boat burns, the ashes will scatter into the water. Note, I’m not advocating anyone setting things on fire in public waterways. I’m just saying, hypothetically, it might be cool. Two, make sure your grandma’s fingernails and toenails are nicely trimmed before she’s cremated. According to Norse lore, a bunch of dark stuff called the Ragnarök is going to go down, ending in a huge battle where the gods die and the world is destroyed. During that battle, a vengeful army will arrive on a giant ship called the Naglfar or nail ship. That’s right. It’s an entire battleship made out of the fingernails and toenails of dead people. So if you don’t want grandma’s nails to contribute to the fall of the universe, get out the clippers and snippy snip. If you follow these steps, sure, it’s still not a Viking funeral, but at least you get the flaming boat and a heroic manicure. Thank you.
(20:03) Alright. It seems like I have a, when you said water on the stage, I was expecting a bottle of water, but this is kind of adding to the whiskey atmosphere. Okay. I think we’re going to do Q & A now. Would anyone like to step forward? Yes. Hi. I see you come forward. Speak it into the microphone. Speak your question.
Audience Member 1: (20:24) Hello.
CD: Hi. You’re so stylish.
Audience Member 1: Oh, thank you.
CD: You look great tonight. Thank you for coming.
Audience Member 1: So I’m also in the industry. We call them transfers at our funeral home or removals. My partner is actually out there. She went on my first transfer with me. And I’ve noticed a lot of sexism when you’re doing transfers as a woman, a lot of times I’ll go to these homes to pick up a body and they’re like, “Oh, you’re a woman. I wasn’t expecting that.” How do you deal with sexism in the industry as a whole?
CD: Interestingly, and this is something that I’ve thought— oh, I can see you all now, hello, there were people there the whole time. Something that I’ve found really interesting about, particularly, home removals or transfers or being the person going to pick up the body, is that people don’t say that to me as much because I’m a big woman. Which is weird, right? And I’ve noticed this in the industry, specifically, something about me being just over six feet tall. It’s like, oh, well that’s a funeral woman. Because it’s true. So many women just say, either the family or when’s the actual—oh yeah, the duo of you. And you guys can move a corpse can’t you? You move a corpse with no problem.
Audience Member 1: What’s the biggest we’ve done? Like 400?
Audience Member 2: Yeah.
CD: This is just like a beautiful picture of you two doing that. I’m just imagining it in my mind now and it’s quite powerful. But it’s also, I mean quite honestly, it’s about having a solid low center of gravity to be able to move things. As I just told you, I faceplanted off a stage the other day. So that’s not really the skill you need to have. I think crematory operators get it to, “How are you gonna move the body? How are you going to do that?” I think a couple things. In the short term, just proving you can do it and proving every day that you’re good and you’re better, and it’s not fun to have to prove that you’re better and you shouldn’t have to do it and that shouldn’t be the way the world works. But, like, hi, hello, you know, 2019 America.
But also, I think having the sense that the funeral industry is changing and perceptions of what the funeral industry is, are changing not only within the industry but outside the industry. I think that who was gonna run the funeral homes and who was going to do things differently. When women enter the funeral industry, now I highly encourage women or any marginalized people to enter the funeral industry, but understanding that it’s not going to be a person who looks like you who owns the funeral home. It’s probably still going to be an older white man who has ideas. And you know, for him, I don’t want to be like with all respect to this older white man, but in a sense like this is his business and he’s been doing it like this for many, many years. Should he be open-minded? Should he want to change? Yes. Can we force him to? No. Is he going to die with some swiftness? Yes. Because if any of you have been to mortuary school, mortuary school does not look like the National Funeral Directors Association Conference. It’s a lot of people who look just like you or who look like me.
Audience Member 1: We all have bangs.
CD: Yeah. And we all have bangs. They do force you down and snip them when you enter mortuary school. I had them so they were like, “Oh no, you’re fine. Go. Continue on.” But I think that as far as what it’s going to look like when you’re the boss, that’s going to be a lot different. And if you can just say to yourself, “the boss, the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss” over and over again. That’s the world. And for those who can really stay with it, that ushers us into the world as I would like to see it. So good luck.
Audience Member 1: Thank you.
CD: (24:29) Hi. Yeah, come on up. Okay. I’ll do you and then I’ll go to you. Hello.
Audience Member 3: What is your perfect description of how you would like to see our American culture embody the concept of death?
CD: Hm. That one’s hard. Wait, let’s go to you first. I mean it’s sort of contradictory, but I think one of the main things I want to see is the realization that there is no one way to look at death because one of my biggest problems with the American funeral industry is that it takes incredibly diverse cultures, immigrant cultures, religions, different racial groups, and puts them all in this extreme cookie cutter model of you embalm the body, you put it in the casket, you put it in the hearse and you put it in the grave. And I think that really hurts our sense of being able to mourn. In Hindu culture, you were burned on an open air pyre. And, in America, where you have these big industrial metal cremation machines with a brick chamber, Hindu families feel like the person’s soul is trapped in the machine because in an open air pirate cremation, the second that the skull cracks open, the idea is that the soul can now be released. But if it’s a big industrial machine, where does that soul go? Is it trapped? So why don’t we have those types of cremations available in every state for those families? And a lot of that is the funeral industry lobby. People who want to keep it the same way, economic protectionism basically.
So interestingly enough, I will not talk about this for 20 minutes, what’s fascinating about this to me is that it makes very strange bedfellows out of extreme liberals and libertarians because they both have the idea of wanting to break down these individual state laws to allow people to do more and have more freedom when it comes to how they choose death. So there’s a zillion ways to answer your question, but the one that I went with, and we’ll wrap up now, is the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to funerals and how we view death. And we should really let communities decide for themselves what a good death looks like for them and not push them through this system in the same way. But that’s a great question. Thank you.
Audience Member 4: (27:27) Well that totally ties into what I wanted to say because natural organic reduction, which was just approved in Washington state and becomes effective in May 2020. So I guess my question to you would be, when you’re talking with people who are from generations prior to yours and they have a lot of resistance about death acceptance generally, they don’t even want to talk about death at all, much less about, I’m gonna compost you.
CD: Yeah. Whether they like it or not, I’m doing that to them. I’m coming to their home and doing it to them.
Audience Member 4:I don’t even want to talk about death, but when I do talk about death, I want to be talk [inaudible] about putting in a 6 by 2 box and have a bunch of chemicals pumped into me cause that’s the right thing. And I’m like, “Oh, God no.”
CD: Okay. So the question is, how you talk to people in those older generations?
Audience Member 4: I want to push them, my family members, so much farther than they’re even— they think they’re super progressive if they talk about cremation.
CD: Well, I mean for them that’s probably true, you know? And I think the problem is when they say we don’t want you to do what you want, we have to do it like we want. As far as an older person wanting to be embalmed and have all their friends come to their big Catholic wake, I’m not going to stop them from doing that. Like they’ve been going to church funerals, they’ve been going to the same type of funeral for years and God bless them, literally, God bless them. They should be allowed to continue to do that and have the exact type of funeral that they want. But something that is encouraging to me is the idea that in 1983 the cremation rate in America was 3%. We’ve just gone over 50% cremation rates. [light applause] I’ve never had anybody cheer for the cremation rate before. [Laughter] Right. Okay.
Audience Member 4: Now Washington is doing, or we’re about to be doing, natural organic.
CD: Exactly. You’re doing aquamation and recomposition, which is amazing. So, I mean, yeah okay, Washington, you’re the best. We get it. We all know it. We all suffer under your shadow. Congratulations. Everyone in the green death industry just crawls along behind. Amazing for you. But you can find articles from major, major newspapers in the 1980s that say things like, “Cremation? Grisly tales discourage it.” And they very much mimic articles in major newspapers today about alkaline hydrolysis, about water cremation like, “have a glass of granddad. Flushing grandpa down the drain.”
Audience Member 4: How industry motivated is that?
CD: How industry motivated is that? I don’t think it’s that part, it’s not like they get a list of talking points from someone at the Funeral Directors Association. I think that people really don’t know. And when they hear about dissolving a body with high heat water and potassium hydroxide, they’re like, “Gangster acid. They’re going in a vat.” People’s imaginations just go wild. But look at what we’ve done with cremation in such a short amount of time when you can consistently show that it’s lower cost, that it’s environmentally better because all the things that recomposition and alkaline hydrolysis offer are the things that cremation originally offered, except even more simple environmentally better, low cost, saving on land and resources. All the things that appealed to people about cremation now could potentially appeal even more. So that’s what I think is our saving grace here.
Audience Member 4: Okay. So last question, I promise.
Audience Member 4: So do you think that if humans had a broader acceptance of death, generally, all the rest of this stuff would just sort of fall into line?
CD: Oh yeah. Of course.
Audience Member 4: Like if it weren’t for the civil war and the separation of death in the home.
CD: Okay. That’s like a 45 minute question. That’s all whole lecture. That’s a lecture and a half, “We’re going to start at the civil war.” This is a lecture that I give by the way.
Audience Member 4: Like if modern humans dealt with death in a more immediate sense than they used to do, they don’t do now, don’t you think all of this would be so much easier?
CD: Well, I would. I mean I think that it’s accepting death. That’s scary. I mean, I think you’re preaching to the choir a little bit in this room. I don’t think you’re going to find anyone who disagrees with you, but I think it’s also about acceptance of decomposition and accepting of your body going back into the earth and the loss of control that comes with it, which can be very scary because we like to control ourselves in life.
Audience Member: It’s freeing, people, give it up.
CD: I know. Again, preaching to the choir, who here is into the idea of loss of control through decomposition? Raise your hand. Wait, I had better cheers for the cremation rates. Come on Seattle. Okay, thank you for your question. Hi.
Audience Member 5: (33:06) Hello. So I’ve kinda a weird question.
CD: No, it’s not going to be, I promise.
Audience Member 5: So last Christmas I asked my sister for your book, the Smoke Gets in Your Eyes one, and she was kind of weirded out by that. And then I told her, I’m like, “Oh no, no, no, no. She’s like a cool YouTuber-like, go watch her videos.” So she started watching her videos and now she really wants to have like kind of a fun death, like post-death I guess. So her idea of that was she wanted to be cremated and then she wanted me to scatter some of her ashes. She’s really optimistic and dying before me, but anyways, she wants me to scatter some of her ashes in the Rocky Mountains, but then she wants me to take a majority of them and she loves whales. So she wants me to go on a boat, find a pod of whales and throw her ashes at them. My question, ’cause I’m just trying to think logistically about this, is obviously if you just throw ashes, they’re just gonna [inaudible], right?
CD: The whales are gonna to be like, “What the fuck?” They’re gonna sneeze out their blowhole. This is whale science, people, really true whale science.
Audience Member 5: Can I mix her ashes with water and make like a a mud ball?
CD: Are you beaming the whales? [Laughter]
Audience Member 5: Yeah, like softball. Just chuck it.
CD: I don’t know how many of you know this about me, I have a deep fear of whales. This kind of goes back to the open ocean outrigger canoe paddling that I mentioned. And the fact that we would do that with big wet—they’re just too big. They’re unnaturally large. I mean, I’m all for their conservation. I completely understand their poop goes to the bottom. It keeps the whole ocean going. We need them. But I personally find them terrifying. So I’m working through that to answer this question and trying to picture why someone would want that. But I think, I mean, if you could find the right person to take you to the pod of whales, I mean they have a lot of nice urns that are decomposing urns specifically for scattering. So there’s one that we used for my uncle, actually, that’s shaped like a big shell and so you can kind of just release it into the ocean. So it’s not a Big Lebowski situation. ‘Cause when you’re on a boat in the ocean that is hard to control. If you just try to open the coffee can and pitch it out. Good luck but you might get a little bit out of it, you know, or a lot of it returned. So if you have something where the ashes are contained in like a shell, which is of course nautical themed, whales love shells, you could potentially come up alongside the whales and just release the shell alongside them and then it would disintegrate and go into the ocean and it would be lovely.
Audience Member 5: She was super particular about me throwing them. [Laughter]
CD: I mean I think your sister might want to consider where that’s coming from. And where that anger gets ’cause I’m telling you, I don’t think there’s anyone who’s more scared of whales than me, but I don’t have that anger toward them. So obviously there’s more going on there. I think about this a lot when people say, you know, I want this wild thing but my family doesn’t want to do it. Or the thing is after she dies, she won’t really know if you threw them at them or not.
Audience Member 5: I want to throw her at the whales.
CD: (36:51) [Laughter] Well, I don’t know if that’s against some marine mammal attack sort of thing. [inaudible] it is? It is. Okay. So I here today will not be telling you that you can do that because my connection with marine life, though tenuous,I wouldn’t want to do that to them. But I think she can still be near them or she could put her whole body into the ocean.
Audience Member 5: She doesn’t want that.
CD: Okay. Alright. Well, I appreciate your commitment to her, but I’m going to go out on a wild limb here and say don’t throw ash balls at the whales. But I do appreciate your question. Thank you.
Audience Member 5: Thank you.
CD: (37:39) Hi. [Gasp] A real child. Hello. I’m so delighted to have you. Hello. What’s your name?
Audience Member 6: My name is Judah Fisher.
CD: Hi. Thank you for coming.
Audience Member 6: My question was, what are the most kind of interesting burials or the most outside the box kind of burials?
CD: That’s a good question. I think what’s really interesting is that it sort of matters where you’re from, right? Because what’s outside the box for us or like crazy for us is not true for other people. So for example, do you want to talk about cannibalism? Can I talk about cannibalism? Okay, cool. Just want to make sure you’re cool with that.
So one of my favorite stories is about this group in Brazil, and they don’t do this anymore, but what they used to do is that when someone in their village would die, they would cannibalize him, they would eat them. It wouldn’t be the direct family that would have to eat them. It would be the aunts, the uncles, the cousins, like think of all the fun people at a family reunion. They would be the ones to eat the body. And the reason that they did it, it wasn’t because they wanted food. It wasn’t because it was delicious because apparently it wasn’t. It wasn’t very good eating and humans are very low calorie. I have come to find out, they’re not like a good source of nutrition either. But the reason they did it is because they wanted to absorb the person back into the community. They wanted the person to become part of the community again and eating them was one way to do that. And they also didn’t want the person to be in the ground. They thought if they buried them in the ground that it would be cold, that it would be dark, that they didn’t want to be there.
Then the Brazilian, sort of the Christian government, came in and said the tribe, they’re called the Wariʼ, you have to bury people now. And it was horrible for them because all of a sudden these people who had been doing exactly what they wanted to do now had to bury mom in the cold ground and she was trapped down there. And that was really, really scary for them. So for us, we might look at them and go like, “Oh, cannibalism, shocking, horrible.” But for them they say burying someone in the ground, “shocking, horrible”. We don’t want to do that. So it really just is allowing people to do what they want to do in their own culture. But that’s a very thoughtful question and I appreciate it. Cheers. Thanks. Yeah, let’s give a hand for the child. Real child. Yes. Okay. Hi.
Audience Member 7: (40:15) Hi. Two years ago, it was the first time that I knew of you.
CD: Same. After years after years of therapy.
Audience Member 7: My 14 year old daughter was reading your book, your first book. And I have to admit I was a little concerned.
CD: I love your daughter. Your daughter’s great.
Audience Member 7: We started watching YouTube videos together and then I realize why her scientific little brain was so turned on by these things. So since she’s growing up kind of like you did a morbid child. What should I say or not say to discourage her or to encourage her mini mortician-ness.
CD: I mean, the fact that you showed up at this event and are asking this question, I feel like you’re already well on your way. I think the thing about my mom. Let me tell another story about my mom. After I graduated from my Episcopal all-girls school. The night after graduation I went with my friends to Waikiki, found a guy who I knew from the goth club to pierce both my tongue and my eyebrow, even though I was under 18. And my mom did not want me to do this. I did not tell her I was doing this. And she woke up the next morning, saw my pierced eyebrow and did not like it, was very upset and she said, well at least you didn’t pierce your tongue. And I went like this [sticks out tongue]. And she had to go hyperventilate in a paper bag which I’ve never seen my mother do ever before or since. And I told her, listen mom, like I know you’re really upset, but I think this is beautiful. For me, this is what I think is beautiful. And my mom obviously she was literally hyperventilating. It was bad. It was hard for her. And then I found out that within a couple of days she was telling her friends at work, “Well, it’s just what she thinks is beautiful. It’s her expression.” And the fact that she had been able, and she’s had to be doing this with me my whole life because I’ve made one proclamation after another on these sort of things.
But I think that what I’ve always loved and respected about her so much is that even if something was really hard for her to take in, she would do the work to process it and end up having it be a positive about her beloved child. So whatever it was, even if it’s not like she didn’t deserve a couple of days to be like, [inaudible] but she took those and she used them wisely and came back with some way to integrate it into her worldview that made it positive. And you should hear her explaining to her friends how to ask for a direct cremation now. Because my mother is formidable. So when she gets on the phone with your funeral home and asks about pricing, you do not want to be on the other end of that line. So I think that you’re already doing that and that’s such a touching and lovely question.
Audience Member 7: I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.
CD: Doing what you’re doing. Yeah. You sound great. If you have the self awareness to ask that question, you can’t be better than that I think. Hi.
Audience Member 8: Hi. I’m totally going to fangirl for a minute. Oh my God, I’m so glad you’re in Seattle.
CD: (43:44) Yeah, I’m glad I’m in Seattle.
Audience Member 8: (43:47) This is awesome. So I have about 8,000 questions rolling through my head right now. My heart’s beating out of my throat. I think all y’all have felt that before. So I’m an existentially based clinical psychologist and I deal with a lot of trauma in children and adults and major psychopathologies and a lot of my clients come in talking about deaths. I’ve had patients come in and talk about watching their loved ones die and losing them to suicide, things like that. I’m gonna take a breath. Everybody take a breath. Okay. But my question is, I think in terms of second wave existentialism and if I lose you guys just say, “Jen chill.”
CD: I also think in terms of second wave existentialism.
Audience Member 8: So, Albert Camus posited the idea that suicide was the most important question and I wanted to hear your thoughts and kind of cross pollinate professions right now and see what your thoughts are on that. What advice you could give somebody in my field to help clients.
CD: I love that you’re asking this question at an event for Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?
Audience Member 8: It’s just my style.
CD: Yeah, I think that’s great. Obviously it is not popular to say or to agree with Camus in the sense of like everyone gets an absolute choice as to whether they live or die. You know, that’s your great choice. Use it wisely. See you later. Because that obviously doesn’t necessarily take into account the dearth of mental health options available to most people. But I will say that something that I have found with working with a lot of people who are extremely depressed, extremely anxious and come to my videos or come to my books, is that talking about death with someone who is suicidal doesn’t put it in their mind to die by suicide. People who are actively suicidal, that’s all they’re thinking about all day. And if you say, “Hey, do you want to learn more about death in this engaged community and in this engaged way and all these people together who are also fascinated about the end of the body and where it goes from there?” They are not going to say, “Oh, I didn’t think about that. Actually, now I want to die. I’ve just been reminded of this and now I want to die.” That’s a lot of what people think. People genuinely think that if they reach out to someone who they know as suicidal or deeply depressed and they actively talk about death or the fact that we don’t talk about death in our culture, that they are going to be the ones that tip them over the edge. And that’s just not it.
Most people, and I get this comment or this response again and again, is I was deeply depressed or deeply anxious and being able to come upon material that openly engaged me with death and said, “Hey, it’s okay. Like come on down. Isn’t the world terrible and scary?” Like let’s engage with this together and find interesting parts and find parts of humanity in that. But that is really helpful for them. And if I ever got the feedback that that wasn’t how I was doing things was working, then I would stop doing it the way that I’m doing. But that’s what I found and I’d love to, I know we don’t have full time here, but I’d love to talk to you more about this after as well.
Audience Member 8: I am way more than willing to talk with you.
CD: Okay. Let’s do it.
Audience Member 8: We have a bottle of merlot, right.
CD: Okay. All right. I’ll find you. How much time do we have? I don’t want to cut into our pictures and hugs.
Audience Member 9: (47:43) I’ll make it quick and I’ll save the “I love you and thank you for everything you’ve done” until afterwards. But I recently became part of the industry and being non-binary and I don’t always look it and especially at work and so the first question of like, “Oh, you’re a girl” and it’s like this hard conversation that I still haven’t figured out how to have with the industry with the people there because they’re all old white men. But something that I’ve had a hard time swallowing the last month is we pick up decedents and we look at them and they say, that’s male and that’s female. And being non-binary, knowing like the queer community and the trans community, is there something that we can do to change this and is there something that the families can do or the people can do to put an X or an M or an F if they haven’t gone through a full transition?
CD: Yeah, that’s also not a quick question. I have so much to say about that ’cause this is such a fascinating time of transition, no pun intended, for this part of our community and how we respect that and engage that in the funeral industry. Two things, one specific to you and one more general. The more general one is that if you have anything you feel would not be respected in the funeral home environment or the bureaucracy of the funeral home or by the people who are your next of kin, by all means, get an advanced directive and assign your healthcare and post-mortem care to someone else who you trust in your chosen family, whoever it is, who you feel would do right by you.
As to your direct question, something that we did at my funeral home that I am actually incredibly proud of is that we had a non-binary person who wasn’t the decedent, but their father had died and their father was at our funeral home. And even on the death certificates in California, we have to say who the informant is and we have to say who the informant is to the decedent and they only accept ‘daughter’ or ‘son’. And so we went through a whole thing to get them to allow ‘child’ instead. And so, yeah, I don’t need my straight cis woman plaudits for that. But I do think that every funeral home can chip away at it like that. So now that you’re in the industry, what are you doing that’s just chipping away at those little things? Because, yeah, it’s the cultural things of how do you identify the person in the casket. But it’s also things like how does the bureaucracy identify them and how do you move that through in a way that doesn’t traumatize folks at a time where they’re already, of course, traumatized. So I’m glad that you’re thinking about that and please keep doing good work. That’s a great question. Thank you.
CD: (50:45) Hi.
Audience Member 10: Hi there. So your book is Big Questions Posited By Tiny Mortals. I’m going to get a little dark and ask a big question about tiny mortals and their mortality. It’s kind of been on my mind for this weekend. I’m a removal technician—
CD: A lot of removal techs in the house tonight. Okay.
Audience Member 10: I just did a removal this morning for a young boy, like 10. And I wanted to know because even though I work in a funeral home, the curtain is kind of closed on the care for children. What sort of extra things or different things are available for the body of a child versus an adult.
CD: I was just going to say my favorite thing about when children die, which is not what I mean. I’m going to change that to something I greatly admire about parents when a child dies is that all the time, we’re trying to get people to be more involved in care for the dead person and feel like they’re empowered and feel like they can be closer to the dead body and take more of those physical ritual responsibilities themselves. And something about parents when they lose a child is they just say eff you to every rule to every standard—
Audience Member 10: We had that experience with this family. They kept the child in their home for a very long time by our standards and they were so happy about it. Like the boy [inaudible] rigored and they’re like, “Oh, it’s such a good thing. He left to meet Buddha.” The whole thing. And it was like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” But I was just curious what sort of care they would be able to have beyond that.
CD: I mean, I think that’s it and I don’t mean that’s it, like, that’s all they get. But, I mean, that’s the absolute best thing that they can do is say, I took care of this child my whole life and I’m not gonna let anybody take them away from me until I am good and ready. Something we also did is we were able to drive a child to the home from the hospital that had died, take them to the home, the family spent the night with the child in the home and then the next day they took the casket, put it in the family minivan, and drove it up to central California where they had a plot in a cemetery. And so they did it entirely on their own. And at a certain point I really thought, I was calling them like, “Hey, do you need me to come over?” And they’re like, “Nope, don’t come over.” Which was great. They didn’t need me there. I was just some random person that they didn’t know and didn’t trust. And so it’s not like a mother doesn’t know how to take care of her child. And so giving parents, or whoever their next of kin is, that kind of power, that kind of really radical power, they often ask for it but if they don’t, letting them know that they have it forcefully and sincerely, I think, is the best thing that we can do for families. Because with children, home funerals are for everyone, but they may need it more than any other group. So that’s amazing that your funeral home did that though. And sorry it was a rough day.
Audience Member 10: It’s been a long day, but not a rough day. It was, you know.
CD: That’s good. Yeah, it’s been a long day, but not a rough day. That’s a beautiful way to say that. Thank you.
CD: (54:06) Hi.
Audience Member 11: Hi. My name is Vivian. I just found out about you recently and I really enjoyed this event tonight. And so my question is, I’m not sure if you do talk about this, but I was curious to see what your plans are after you pass away or if you have any or why you chose them.
CD: I have no plans. It’s like, “Wait, I’m going to die? No.” [laughter] I think that my plans are always changing and that’s a good thing. I tend to try and check in with it once a year. And I also try and have about once a year when I really think about dying. And I mean in the sense of like setting aside some time where I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything and really thinking, okay, what if I was diagnosed with three months to live? What am I doing? What am I, how am I acting? How am I moving forward? What do I actually want from my death plan? And letting myself really go into those emotions. Because a lot of people, especially when they’re terrified of death, all they think of is, “I’m in a car crash, ahh.” You know, “I’m going to walk out and get hit by a bus, aha.” They don’t really think through the full arc of what would happen and what the funeral would look like and what grieving for other people would look like and what you have to say to people that you haven’t said yet. And so I think that exercise can be really helpful. And you can also end that with thinking about what you want done with your body. So if I’m ever asked that question, I usually say, the funny answer is I want to be eaten by animals. It’s not the funny answer, it’s the true answer. But it’s not legal right now. Yet. I mean, if Washington is an example, anything is possible. I’m coming up here to be eaten by giant birds. What’s your most majestic bird in Washington?
CD: (56:00) Okay, perfect. America. So that is what I want conceptually, but I also have a really thought-out, laid out death plan that I email my mother and my friends. Every year or so, I say, “This is Caitlin’s death plan” and I can’t remember what I say, but I say something in the subject that’s like, “For the future” or something that lets them know that if they open it, it’s not just Caitlin’s death plan. Or let them know it’s coming. You can’t just email someone out of the blue like that. Even the people who know me and know what I’m up to. But at this point I want people to use my body to see that it’s not scary or hard to be around. I’m happy with people filming my body, I’m happy with people taking pictures of my body so it can hopefully be of comfort to people, that it’s okay to have a service like that. And then I want to be naturally buried. So just a hole dug in the ground and my body allowed to decompose into the earth. Thank you for asking that. Alright and final question. Did you convince someone to step down?
Audience Member 12: (57:15) No, actually he volunteered.
CD: (57:15) Oh, that’s so nice.
Audience Member 12: We can appreciate him, he volunteered. So my question is along the lines of my brother and I were exposed to death at a very early age simply because we would run up the hill behind his elementary school and up there was the cemetery and that was just where we hung out and where we played. And, yet, I was like 12 years old the first time I actually saw a skull because a grave had sunk in.
CD: Damn. Someone should have been paying attention. But I mean, cool, but.
Audience Member 12: There were caution cones but it wasn’t like [inaudible]. I wish I was kidding.
CD: I mean, I know you’re not. I’ve seen the cemetery industrial complex. Anyway, continue.
Audience Member 12: So after watching some of your videos, we came to acknowledge really what the previous generations of funerals have done in terms of grave liners and formaldehyde leaking into the environment. And we tend to be very environmentally conscious and we’re having a hard time striking a balance between loving going to our cemetery because it’s a great place to be and realizing what an ecological impact it has on our area. And I was wondering if you had any advice?
CD: (58:22) Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. I think especially really old cemeteries, really old cemeteries, those bodies are sort of just gone underneath there. So I was in Philadelphia two days ago— the days are blurring together. I was in Philadelphia and I was at this very old colonial cemetery, literally, Benjamin Franklin is there. And they have all these headstones that are almost totally eaten in the earth. It’s almost like a GIF where there’s one and then the one next to it is even lower and the one next to it is even lower in the ground, eaten by the earth. And those bodies, if they were put in wooden coffins and put in the ground, they are gonezo. I mean, depending on the soil, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they are. But we really got into this place where we said, okay, we have to keep control of our bodies. We have to make them safe. We can’t be dangerous. We need to chemically embalm them. Then we need to put them in these heavy caskets. We need to put them in these grave liners. And the way to think about it is that that’s not the dead people’s fault. It’s part of an industry that sprung up around them. And if you have a beautiful old cemetery, it’s still incredibly meditative and gorgeous and a place to honor people. And in many ways I think green cemeteries have a way to go before convincing people they can offer them the same thing. And so still going to our older cemeteries with the headstones, with the whole shebang, especially if they’re beautiful, unique headstones, we can learn from them still. There’s still a lot to learn about the future of the death industry from the past of the death industry.
And it’s an ongoing project. And I visit cemeteries every city that I go to. I go to the independent bookstore and I go to the cemetery. And like maybe a donut, with every city that I go to ’cause those are my favorite places. Those are where I feel most engaged, most meditative. A cemetery like that is still an introvert’s dream. And what you’re talking about thinking about when you go to those cemeteries is exactly what I think about when I go to those cemeteries. And then I write books about it and make videos about it. But those cemeteries still inspire me and they don’t inspire me in a like “ugh” way. They inspire me to think about how beautiful they are and how the future of death can be beautiful in a different way. And how do we have that same feeling and that same wonder in a place that looks different or has a different ecological impact? So don’t beat yourself up for enjoying being there, use it, use those feelings, use those desires and help us move death forward. But that’s a fantastic question. Thank you. I think that’s it.
Jini Palmer: (01:01:27) Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle Arts and Culture series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, Hibou and Seattle’s own Barsuk records. A special thanks to our audio engineer Andy Krohn. Check at our new season of Town Hall Seattle’s original podcast, In The Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews somebody coming to Town Hall, they get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind the scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality and interests. If you like our Arts and Culture series, listen to our Civics and Science series as well. For more information to check out our calendar of events or to support town hall, go to our website at townhallseattle.org