“Kids, far more than adults, tend to ask questions about the body. And if I had to choose just one thing to learn about for the rest of my life, it would be the many adventures of the dead body. So kids are sort of interested in the same things that I’m interested in,” Caitlin Doughty says, laughing. We’re on the phone between Tennessee and Los Angeles on a sunny day—perhaps too sunny, given the content of our discussion—talking about her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?
An author, mortician and death activist, Doughty has filled her third book with answers to questions posed to her by children—who tend to ask, with characteristic bluntness, about the gruesome details that adults won’t. For example, why do we turn colors when we die? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you swallowed a bag of popcorn before you die and were cremated? (A cremation machine is three times hotter than the ideal temperature for popping corn, so the kernels would just burn.)
It’s not that Doughty doesn’t want to answer questions about the afterlife—those aloof, philosophical questions that grown-ups tend to ask. “We just also need education that’s a little more frank and basic than that,” she says. “Sometimes it can feel like we don’t even have the vocabulary to have the more adult conversations about death.”
Doughty begins building that vocabulary—and issues an invitation to join her—in this straightforward but humorous meander through thanatology. A more traditional Q&A book, informed by the distance and politeness of adults, might pose questions like, “What happens during an embalming?” And Doughty, the mortician, would answer. But in our death–phobic society, Doughty believes we can all benefit from children’s deep curiosity about mortality—those “really specific, kind of gory, kind of just great questions about death.” (What would happen if you died on a plane? Do conjoined twins always die at the same time?)
Children won’t know the answers to the questions in Doughty’s book, of course—but most adults won’t either. After all, adults are simply kids “who have long since given up on getting the answers to questions like that.” Therefore, says Doughty, “I’m speaking not only to children but to the adults who never got to have this open conversation about death.”
Engaging in these conversations has been Doughty’s passion throughout much of her adult life. At the age of 22, with a newly minted medieval history degree concentrating on death and culture, she embarked on a bit of an independent personal research project by working at a San Francisco crematorium. The connection was instant.
Doughty went on to become a mortician with her own funeral home, as well as a high-profile death activist with a massive following on YouTube and Instagram. “It was pretty immediate. And this is kind of woo-woo, but as soon as I started, I just knew, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do. I am supposed to help people understand this and be an advocate for this,’ and that’s what I’ve done every day since then.”
Frustrated by exploitative practices in the commercial funeral industry and what she calls a “culture of silence” surrounding death, Doughty advocates for more transparency in the funeral industry and for practices that better lend themselves to death acceptance in American culture. She explains that our squeamishness about death “has a lot to do with the modernization of culture in general.” It wasn’t until the early 20th century that people started dying in hospitals instead of at home. Around the same time, funeral homes rather than family members started caring for the deceased. The rise of slaughterhouses took the killing of animals away from the home and into a private, secret area at the edge of town. “You used to have all of this death around you all of the time—people dying, dead bodies and wakes, killing animals for food—and all of a sudden, all of that disappeared. You know that’s going to have a profound effect on your culture.”
In Doughty’s first and second books, she pulled back the curtain on the American funeral industry and presented a window into the varied death practices in other countries. Equal parts intrigued by the questions she received from children at her events and bothered by the lack of honesty they had received about the final transition, Doughty set out to provide some facts. “Every time a parent brought a kid to the event and they asked a really good question, I was like, ‘Excellent, we’ll file that away.’”
Boasting answers to “100% ethically sourced (free range organic)” questions from real kids, Doughty covers questions from funeral practices to the biological ins and outs of decomposition with the grace, humor and candor that she feels all people (small ones included) deserve. Providing the younger generations with facts and a language for death gives Doughty hope for how we address death and dying moving forward.
“What I’ve found from working with adults, and I don’t think that kids are any different, is that you fear death less the more that you know,” she says. “So I don’t think that a kid who already has an open mind and already wants to know about decomposition and these harder things is going to think that’s terrifying. They’re going to think that’s cool and interesting.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?