Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175
At the age of twenty-three, Caitlin Doughty moves to San Francisco to seek work in the funerary industry. Unsuccessful in her job search for six months due to a lack of experience, she eventually lands a job at Westwind Cremation & Burial as a crematory operator. On her first day of work, her taciturn boss, Mike, asks her to shave a corpse for later viewing by the family. Doughty soon learns to operate a cremation machine (called a “retort” in the industry), locate and prepare bodies for cremation, and process cremated remains into fine ash. She is sometimes unprepared, such as when she encounters a decomposed corpse or is dusted by human ash, but is determined to keep calm and learn all the stages of her new job.
Her formative experience with mortality came at age eight, when she saw a girl fall to her death at a mall. Suffering from PTSD after the experience, Doughty developed compulsive behaviors to keep herself safe. In her downtime at Westwind, her fear of and fascination with death leads her to plan an interactive funeral home, La Belle Mort (The Beautiful Death), which she envisions being both educational and light-hearted. She thus hopes both to heal her own trauma and, by demystifying death, help others avoid such trauma.
Doughty’s role at Westwind expands as she gains expertise. When people die at home, Doughty accompanies body-transport driver Chris to retrieve the corpse and bring it to Westwind; this is not a common errand, as most deaths occur in a hospital. In transporting bodies and dealing with the relatives of the deceased, she again realizes how rare the sight of death is to modern Americans.
Her first witness cremation—in which the family of the deceased is present for the cremation of the body—surprises and initially intimidates Doughty. She is eager to demonstrate respect for the family’s ritual approach to their grief, which approach differs from the more common preference for distance. As a result of the witness cremation, she rethinks the structure of La Belle Mort. Rather than glossing over the realities of death, she would prefer to allow family to be present and involved.
Doughty learns the embalming process from Bruce, a professional embalmer who prepares bodies for burial at Westwind. The embalmer must replace blood with formaldehyde, a carcinogen, and pierce the body’s organs using a sharp, slim tool known as a trocar. In confronting the violence of the embalming process, Doughty begins to question the purpose and utility of the procedure. She also struggles emotionally with cremating deceased babies and fetuses, some of which have to be collected from hospitals in Berkeley and Oakland.
Westwind’s online cremation booking service, Bayside Cremation, offers families the option to submit the location of the deceased and opt out of the death process entirely—simply receiving ashes in the mail. When a late nine-year-old girl’s family takes advantage of the impersonal service, Doughty is horrified by their thoughtlessness. She also encounters relatives who don’t ascertain the wishes of the dying before they die because they find it more palatable not to discuss the subject of death at all. When a relative wishes to see a dead person once more before the body’s cremation, the mortuary staff must go through an intensive process of “setting the features” to hide the changes wrought by death, which process requires the use of artificial, invasive products and procedures.
The replacement of Westwind’s retort’s floors causes a river of molten fat to pour out during the cremation of an overweight individual, the epitome of an untidy death. Sometimes severed body parts—the byproducts of body donation and body brokerage—are delivered to Westwind for cremation. The division of the body revolts Doughty, a fear she acknowledges is cultural and inconsistent with the reality of cremation, which not only fragments the body, but destroys the subject’s individuality and integrity. She abandons the “naïve” idea of La Belle Mort, which would contribute to further commodification of death without restoring meaningful rituals. Instead, she decides the true nature of death should be known and respected.
Seeing the body of a young man who strongly resembles her close friend Luke leads Doughty to notice her own loneliness and desire for lasting love. Encountering decomposed bodies at the mortuary, she realizes how rare such sights are in a culture that nearly always chooses embalming or cremation. She plans a natural burial for her own body, one in which she would be placed in the earth in a biodegradable shroud, and she begins to release her fear of death. Increasingly comfortable caring for bodies, she wants to help others to take control of their fear and care for the bodies of loved ones. She plans to attend mortuary school as the best way to effect change in the funeral industry from within. Simultaneously, she hopes to pursue a romance with Luke.
Doughty expresses her feelings for Luke, which ends their longtime friendship. At the same time, she feels isolated at mortuary school by the strength of her convictions about death rituals. On a journey into redwood country, she nearly drives off a cliff, feeling unsure of her purpose now that her convictions about love and death are shaken.
In her eighteen months at Cypress College of Mortuary Science, Doughty encounters sincere professors and befriends some of her classmates, but her aversion to embalming continues. She now must practice on the bodies of the unclaimed indigent and homeless. In increasingly ill health due to stress, she escapes into a new plan for a funeral home—Undertaking L.A., which would allow families to clean and care for the departed’s body according to lost tradition. Student debt prevents her from realizing this dream at the moment, so she seeks industry work again and takes a position at a busy crematory as a body-transport driver.
As her ideas about death values and customs crystallize, she begins posting essays online under the name “The Order of the Good Death” and starts a web series called “Ask a Mortician.” These activities result in professional ostracism but also in a growing community of curious and like-minded individuals. Increasingly, Doughty perceives the problems inherent in the reigning medical model, which unquestioningly prolongs life without ensuring quality of life. The death of her own grandmother brings home this reality: Doughty’s beloved Tutu lingered for four years after a brain bleed, stripped of her former personality or sense of self.
Accepting death, Doughty concludes, doesn’t mean averting grief. Rather, it entails that a loved one’s death will not occur in an atmosphere of fear and misunderstanding. She continues to work with The Order of the Good Death to envision supportive crematory designs and to support laws that might eventually permit a greater variety of burial types, including open-air. A return visit to Westwind brings her full circle, and there she contemplatively interprets “the silence of death” as “a reward for a life well lived.”
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