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A Mortician Talks Openly About Death, And Wants You To, Too

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2014 at 5:33 am
Mortician Caitlin Doughty says she romanticized working in a crematory, like this one in Watertown, Mass. But the reality is that modern crematories are "really industrial environments and the body goes into large industrial machines." And, she says, "oftentimes I was the only one there."

Mortician Caitlin Doughty says she romanticized working in a crematory, like this one in Watertown, Mass. But the reality is that modern crematories are “really industrial environments and the body goes into large industrial machines.” And, she says, “oftentimes I was the only one there.”

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Talking about death isn’t easy, but mortician Caitlin Doughty is trying to reform how we think about the deaths of loved ones — and prepare for our own.

“My philosophy is honesty,” Doughty tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “I think that we’ve been so hidden from death in this culture for such a long time that it’s very refreshing and liberating to talk about death in an open, honest manner.”

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

And Other Lessons from the Crematory

by Caitlin Doughty

Hardcover, 256 pages purchase

Doughty is the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists who focus on the rituals families perform with their dead and how the industry disposes of dead bodies. She is also starting her own funeral service in Los Angeles, called Undertaking L.A., that will help families with planning after they lose a family member.

Doughty’s new memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory,serves as, among other things, a way for her to cope with working with dead bodies.

“I write a lot because it can take a lot out of you — especially if you consider the job as more than just a trade,” Doughty says. “Not only are you dealing with the dead bodies; you’re dealing with the incredible sorrow of the families and the fact that they can get very mad at you. … They’re angry that somebody has died and they’re looking for somebody to take it out on.”

Doughty says she hopes to educate people on the inevitable. On her video series, Ask a Mortician, she answers questions on a wide range of subjects including home death, pet death, necrophilia and what happens to breast implants and titanium hip replacements after a body is cremated. Her Wednesday Addams style and energetic personality is part of what draws viewers.

“I think that humor gets people to watch them; I think cultural references get people to watch them; I think me being friendly and young gets people to watch them,” she says. “I’m passionate about presenting it in a way that makes people consider it — and makes people not afraid of it.”

Caitlin Doughty is the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists who focus on the rituals families perform with their dead.

Mara Zehler/Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

Interview Highlights

On how she once romanticized crematory work, and how that compared with reality

I think it was probably more romantic than it actually ended up being. I thought of the idea of … the open-air pyre and leading the body to it and placing it on the pyre and everybody’s weeping and it’s beautiful. But the reality that I found is that modern crematories are really industrial environments and the body goes into large industrial machines and oftentimes I was the only one there. And it’s hot and it’s dirty and you get covered in dust [ashes] as you’re working.

[The ashes] are inorganic bone fragments, which means that the organic material that is the body — which is your organs, your flesh, the clothes that you’re wearing — all burn up. And what’s left is inorganic bone and that’s what we actually know of as “ashes.” And there’s so much of it that it can, when you’re taking it out of the machine, get on you and get into strange little places that you didn’t even know you had.

On the emotional impact of working with bodies

You get used to it, in a way. I don’t mean that you get callous, but it becomes a reality of your workplace because if you really took it in in the sense of thinking, “Ahh, this is the dust of a man who is no longer here. We are all mortal!” — if you did that every morning with your cup of coffee, while you were cremating your first body, you wouldn’t be able to do the work.

You really have to look past that and really see it as an occupational hazard. That doesn’t mean that working with the bodies and working with the family loses its impact over time, but it just means you can’t take in the full existential despair of it every time or you just wouldn’t be able to come to work every day.

On what she would like to see done differently in cremation

If I could see anything change it would be the level of involvement of the family in the death rituals. Because, when I was working at the crematory, the most shocking thing to me wasn’t so much the decomposing bodies or the strange bodies that I saw, it really was that I was alone there. And I was sending all of these people off to their final disposition in the crematorium machine and there was no one there and it didn’t feel right because I didn’t know these people. And it was an honor and I took it very seriously.

But the time when families did come — and that’s called a “witness cremation,” which is something you can ask for at your local crematory or funeral home — when … the family was there and they sat with the body and they took the time and they pushed the button to send the body into the flames; it was an incredibly powerful experience because they took responsibility for that body. And they took responsibility for that death and for that loss to the community, and that to me is the thing that we’ve lost and it’s most crucial that we get back.

On using more natural alternatives for burial

I did go to school to be an embalmer, in something called “mortuary school,” which is a real thing. … Embalming is the practice that the American funeral industry was essentially built on. … It’s the short-term preservation of the body for a viewing and then the body goes in the casket and the idea would be that you are buried after you are embalmed.

But my personal opinion is that we should be moving towards not embalming unless it’s absolutely necessary because it is a chemical process and it can be an expensive process for the family.

And [we should] return more to the body as it naturally is and [let] it be buried without a big vault and without a big casket and without embalming — just straight into the ground in a shroud or decomposable casket and be allowed to go back into the earth.

On embalming

It’s a very invasive process and a lot of people don’t realize that. It involves removing the blood from the circulatory system through a vein and then putting chemicals, including formaldehyde, [in] to replace the blood. It also involves penetrating the internal organs and putting chemicals there as well.

For me, it doesn’t seem necessary. If you’re shipping a body to Germany or something, you probably want to embalm it — or if there’s some reason that you need to preserve it for a long period of time, at the coroner’s or medical examiner’s office, or for a medical school study, perhaps.

But other than that, if you’re just going to have it at a wake and then bury it, it doesn’t really make sense to have this environmentally unfriendly, invasive procedure done.

On what she wants readers and listeners to take away from her work

Death is going to happen to you — whether you want it to or not — and you’re never going to be completely comfortable with it. But it’s an important process, and please consider facing it.


Aesthetics: easy concept with a bit of thought…

In Uncategorized on September 9, 2014 at 7:40 am

C’mon arrangers of cemeteries: no more parking lots for the dead. Give us some life!

Simple. Inviting....

Simple. Inviting….


A simple delight.

A simple delight.

Low flow refreshing alive water.

Low flow refreshing alive water.

No-flow water.

No-flow water.



Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

In Cemeteries, San Francisco, Uncategorized on May 23, 2014 at 9:11 am

A cool new (to me) blog: Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World


Cemetery of the Week #119: San Francisco’s Russian Hill

View from the crest of Russian Hill

Russian Hill
Vallejo between Taylor and Jones Streets
San Francisco, California
Founded: early 1800s?
Size: 1 acre remaining
Number of interments: unknown
Open: always

In the earliest days of the town of San Francisco, non-Catholic people were often buried where they fell, with sand simply scooped over them. One of the exceptions to that was the Russian graves atop what would come to be called Russian Hill in their honor.

Looking up at the crest of Russian Hill from Ina Coolbrith Park

“The Russian sailors buried their dead at the crest of [what would later be called] Vallejo Street, because the hard clay remained firm, unlike the sand on the summits of other hills,” reports Hills of San Francisco, published by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1959. It goes on to say that the dead men were seal hunters who had died aboard a ship commanded by Count Rezanov.

That would put their deaths early in California’s written history, as Nikolai Rezanov reached San Francisco’s Presidio on April 8, 1806. The modern biography on the National Park Service’s Presidio site says that he wasn’t a fur trader as much as a bureaucrat, trying to establish trade with the Spanish in California in order to resupply the Russian outpost in Sitka, Alaska. The Spanish refused to trade, but as negotiations dragged on, Rezanov fell in love with the Spanish Commander’s 15-year-old daughter, Concepcion Arguello. Her parents agreed to let them marry and Rezanov returned to Russia to secure permission of the Russian Orthodox Church. He died of pneumonia before he could return. Concepcion became a Dominican nun in Benicia, California, where  she remained until her death in 1857.

There are old pioneer reports of Russian crosses on the hill. Because it is so steep, the hill remained a goat pasture, covered in wild mustard, for many years as the city filled in around it.  This is San Francisco by Robert O’Brien describes the site during the Gold Rush era: “The top of this hill then was grass, bleached in the summertime, and rock and mustard.”

Local historian Michael Svanevik said in a lecture at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park that he believes the bodies are still beneath the surface of Russian Hill. Where, exactly, is a matter of conjecture. Some historians vote for the end of Vallejo Street, where it deadends into a bulkhead above Jones Street. Doris Muscatine, in her book Old San Francisco: The Biography of a City, reports that: “the exact site is now a ramp and staircase on the corner of Jones and Vallejo; during its construction, the work crews unearthed several skeletons.” John W. Blackett second that on his San Francisco Cemeteries website, mapping the Russian graveyard “at Vallejo and Jones Streets, overlooking Ina Coolbrith Park,” but he means Taylor Street, which lies alongside Coolbrith Park. I suspect the graveyard spanned the whole crest, from Jones to Taylor.

Rhoads_RussianHill_0969A bilingual plaque placed by the Russian government at the peak of the park says that “Russian Hill was named for the graves of several sailors of the ‘Russian-American Company,’ who died here in the early 1840s. During the Gold Rush, the 49ers found their graves, marked by wooden crosses, at the top of this hill and added graves of their own. The graves were removed or built over during the 1850s.”

Closeup on the English side of the plaque

It is possible that both stories are true: that the graveyard was used as early as 1806 and was still being used by the Russians during the early years of the Gold Rush. The whole truth probably will never be known, unless archaeologists get a chance to exhume any remaining skeletons and examine them. If they find a skeleton with a handful of dated coins, the whole story can be laid to rest.

Blackett believes there were never more than 30-40 graves here and that they — most of them, anyway — were moved to Yerba Buena Cemetery, where the Asian Art Museum and the Main Public Library now stand. Most (though not all) of those graves were exhumed in 1871 and moved out to the new Golden Gate Cemetery where the Palace of the Legion of Honor now stands.  Most (though not all) of those graves were exhumed in 1907 and moved to the new graveyards in Colma, California. However, more than 300 — and perhaps as many as 800 — skeletons were found when the Legion of Honor was retrofitted after the 1989 earthquake.  It’s generally accepted that many of the 16,000 pioneers buried here remain in place, with only the headstones being moved.

Perhaps some of our mysterious Russians lie among them.

French ceramic flowers for cemeteries

In Uncategorized on January 29, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Ceramic floral in Saint Remy les Chevreuse Cemetery

A rich site I found while I was searching for ceramic funerary flowers!: Sleeping Gardens and Other Resting Places- …and, thus found: Céramiques de France, one of the few producers of these gorgeous memorials. You’ll see them all over the place in French cemeteries.


In Uncategorized on December 23, 2013 at 2:48 pm

This is a stunning documentary on Paris’ Pere Lachaise cemetery. Though it focuses on the famous, and some not-so famous artists, what it really conveys is the aliveness of this place. And why living people come here: to be with the dead, whether they be beloveds or other people who have touched their lives.

This really gets across the affection and comfort that people have in this most-beautiful place.

View the full documentary here:

…in the spirit of post-All Souls’ Day….

In Uncategorized on November 4, 2013 at 7:34 am

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints
Photographed by Paul Koudounaris
October 24, 2013

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
St. Albertus

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
St. Valerius in Weyarn

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
Hand of St. Valentin

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
St. Benedictus

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
Skull of St. Getreu in Ursberg

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
St. Friedrich at the Benedictine abbey in Melk

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
St. Valentinus in Waldsassen

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones
Relic of St. Deodatus in Rheinau

The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris history death bones

In 1578 word spread of the discovery in Rome of a network of underground tombs containing the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Many skeletons of these supposed saints were soon removed from their resting place and sent to Catholic churches in Europe to replace holy relics that were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Once in place the skeletons were then carefully reassembled and enshrined in costumes, wigs, jewels, crowns, gold lace, and armor as a physical reminder of the heavenly treasures that awaited in the afterlife.

Over the past few years photographer Paul Koudounaris who specializes in the photography of skeletal reliquaries, mummies and other aspects of death, managed to gain unprecendented access to various religious institutions to photograph many of these beautifully macabre shrines for the first time in history. The photos have been collected into a book titled Heavenly Bodies released by Thames & Hudson early next month. (via Hyperallergic)

Amazing Design Competition Results

In Uncategorized on October 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm

This is an amazing new concept by Thomas Series….



A series of highly visible monuments will act as positive beacons for cities and their inhabitants. The objects are placed in central locations throughout the city and landscape and re-conceptualize the idea of death in direct opposition to conventional approaches of shrouding and marginalizing mourning spaces. The image of death will be a visual reminder integrated into daily life, thus de-stigmatizing it. Generations to come will grow up without associating spaces of memorial and repose with fear, loss, and negativity.

Serene and Magical

In Cemeteries, Public, Shared space, Uncategorized on November 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Eveningtime in a cemetery or columbarium or mausoleum can be magical and beautiful.


Skogskyrkgarden, Stockholm


A path in Skogskyrkgarden Cemetery

But my, these images beckon one into a safe, reflective place.


The Helsinki Cemetery at Christmas

Most of these locations are lighted for All Souls Day and Day of the Dead (in Mexico), and Christmas. Here in San Francisco, the National AIDS Memorial Grove is holding its third “Light in the Grove” on November 30, the eve of World AIDS Day.


Nitra Cemetery, Slovakia


Srebrnica Cemetery, Bosnia


Warsaw Cemetery


Canadian Cemetery, Finland


Canadian Cemetery, Holland


Mexico: Day of the Dead


Light in the Grove, National AIDS Memorial Grove


The creek bed through the redwoods, Light in the Grove


The clear tent at Light in the Grove


Here lies magic: view from inside the clear tent, Light in the Grove

So, also think about cemeteries in another way, another time to experience them….

People, Not Parking Lots

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2012 at 9:58 am

Ayonama Cemetery, Tokyo

We, humans, need cemeteries to be for us, not for automobiles….


Mountain View Cemetery, BC, Canada

…Being able to go where we want at our own pace, at our own space….


Assistens Cemetery, Copenhagen

…In human and humane landscapes….


Varaždin Cemetery, Croatia


Invitation to stroll


…To spend quality time in important places…..


These kinds of people spaces


No more of this, please.

…Cemeteries are for we, the living, and our departed family and friends, not for autos first, with people as an afterthought.

Invite us in

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2012 at 9:36 am

Open up your doors and invite us in!

Napa Valley

Kubota Garden Gate, Seattle

Beckon us…

Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery, Gelderland, Holland

Alnwick Gardens, England

Urban gardenway

And reward us with restful contemplation….

Memorial garden

Open your gates! Invite us in! Give us a place to sit and rest! The simple rules of hospitality…wanting us to visit and to stay for as long as we need. This is what we need cemeteries to do today.

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