Making Death Easier On Families, The Pocketbook–And The Earth

L.A.-based mortician Caitlin Doughty is helping people reinvent postmortem rituals that are better for all of us.

Making Death Easier On Families, The Pocketbook–And The Earth
“Come and be present,” says Undertaking L.A. founder Caitlin Doughty, who is reconnecting people with the funereal arts. [Photo: Stephanie Gonot, Prop styling: Lauren Machen]

Caitlin Doughty has dedicated her entire professional life to getting us to rethink—and embrace—death. Her morbid brand includes a blog (The Order of the Good Death), YouTube channel (Ask a Mortician), and best-selling book (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes). Last fall, she opened a not-for-profit mortuary, Undertaking L.A.


Fast Company: What do you think are the biggest problems with how we approach the rituals of death?
Caitlin Doughty: That death is being hidden away, and that people feel like they paid too much money for funerals. If you get people involved with taking care of the dead themselves, as they have for thousands of years, it solves those problems.

How did we veer so far from that tradition?
Bad Victorian science—the idea that “deadness” is floating off rotting bodies and infecting people. So you put the body in a super-sealed casket with a rubber gasket. Then you have a heavy concrete or metal vault. Then you put it in the ground. Why? Why put it in the earth? No earth is getting anywhere near it! It’s a citadel down there!

When you say you’d like people to be more involved in postmortem rituals, what do you mean, exactly?
Come and be present. Take locks of hair. See the body one final time. Push the body into the cremation machine.

What are the financial benefits of a more hands-on approach?
In L.A., simple, direct cremation can go up to $4,200; ours is $895. An average casket is $4,000; ours, if you want a casket at all—a willow one is $1,370. Fancy shrouds are $500. Or you can BYO shroud, as long as it’s all-natural.

What else are you doing to get people to participate?
We’re planning workshops on how, from start to finish, you would do everything in your home. We’re starting a corps of volunteers—educators for the community about death. And my next book [due out in 2017] is about hiding the corpse and why that’s not serving us as a culture. I’m traveling, looking at [death] through international eyes.

Do other countries do this better than we do?
They do it different. In Germany, you can be a funeral director with no license. In the U.K., they don’t embalm as much. People always say, “What’s the one place that does it right?” There really isn’t one.


About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.