Authors: Caitlin Doughty
W. W. Norton & Company
New York London
To my dearest friends
So supportive, so gracious
A morbid haiku.
According to a journalist’s eyewitness account, Mata Hari, the famous exotic dancer turned World War I spy, refused to wear a blindfold when she was executed by a French firing squad in 1917.
“Must I wear that?” asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.
“If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,” replied the officer, hurriedly turning away.
Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.
Looking mortality straight in the eye is no easy feat. To avoid the exercise, we choose to stay blindfolded, in the dark as to the realities of death and dying. But ignorance is not bliss, only a deeper kind of terror.
We can do
our best to push death to the margins, keeping corpses behind stainless-steel doors and tucking the sick and dying in hospital rooms. So masterfully do we hide death, you would almost believe we are the first generation of immortals. But we are not. We are all going to die and we know it. As the great cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker said, “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.” The fear of death is why we build cathedrals, have children, declare war, and watch cat videos online at three a.m. Death drives every creative and destructive impulse we have as human beings. The closer we come to understanding it, the closer we come to understanding ourselves.
This book is about my first six years working in the American funeral industry. For those who do not wish to read realistic depictions of death and dead bodies, you have stumbled onto the wrong book. Here is where you check the metaphorical blindfolds at the door. The stories are true and the people are real. Several names and details (but not the salacious ones, promise) have been changed to preserve the privacy of certain individuals and to protect the identities of the deceased.
LIMITED ACCESS AREA.
CALIFORNIA CODE OF
TITLE 16, DIVISION 12
Care and Preparation for Burial.
(a) The care and preparation for burial or
other disposition of all human remains
shall be strictly private . . .
—Required funeral establishment
girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand.
Under the glare of fluorescent lights, I looked down at poor, motionless Byron for what seemed like a solid ten minutes. That was his name, or so the toe tag hung around his foot informed me. I wasn’t sure if Byron was a “he” (a person) or an “it” (a body), but it seemed like I should at least know his name for this most intimate of procedures.