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THE MOTIVATED MORTICIAN: CAITLIN DOUGHTY
Watching a young child fall to their death is enough to alter the course of anyone's life. But, as a small child herself, Caitlin Doughty was uniquely affected. It's natural to expect trauma, anxiety about death, and fear of mortality as outcomes from the experience. She did, for a time, struggle with all three. But then she did something remarkable; she turned it around. Now, as an adult, writer, podcaster, mortician, and YouTube sensation Caitlin Doughty is also an active advocate of death positivity.
That's not to say she wants everyone to die. She wants everyone to realize they're going to die and embrace it. She wants us all to have a good relationship with death. She wants us to know that, when the time comes, we have choices. She wants to tell us that, "accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not." That's a quote from the website The Order of the Good Death, an advocacy group founded by Doughty. Through open discussion, education, art, and public speaking, The Order is hoping to break down our harmful concepts of death.
I have been following Doughty's YouTube channel Ask A Mortician for a while now. So, when she advertised her 2015 book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons From the Crematory, I picked it up. It was a truly enjoyable read. She's able to cover the most morbid of subjects with levity and humor without being disrespectful. I admit to a life-long curiosity about the macabre and dark topics most people shy away from. I embrace oddity and champion the misunderstood creatures of the world (bats, snakes, insects, spiders). So, Doughty's subject matter is right up my alley.
However, though she might play to her audience with a touch of Goth style, she is remarkably talented when it comes to getting her message across. Death is a topic most of us don't want to think about, let alone have an open discussion about. Paradoxically, it's also a subject we can't seem to get enough of. Just look at the popularity of crime procedurals, true crime podcasts, and murder mysteries. Even during a global pandemic, one of our biggest focuses is the death toll numbers.
What Doughty does is make death accessible in a very healthy way. She's there to answer any death questions you might be afraid to ask anyone else. Since she's more than just a YouTube personality - she's a licensed mortician - Doughty has firsthand knowledge of her subject. Why is it important for us to discuss death? Well, there's the blinding fact that death is the universal unifier. All of us will die, so why not approach that with all the dignity and knowledge we can muster? It's something we should all be preparing for because we'll have to deal with it eventually.
Did you know that a body doesn't have to be embalmed? Did you know that dead bodies are not dangerous? How about who has the legal right to decide what happens to your loved one's body? Are you aware that there are options other than burial and cremation?
These are the kinds of facts Doughty has made it her mission to disseminate. Most of us will have to deal with the death of a loved one at some point in our lives. When someone dies, it's often a scramble to deal with arrangements. We end up giving exploitive amounts of money to funeral homes. All of this happens while we also have to handle our grief. I'd much rather go into it with a game plan, a strong knowledge of my rights, and a clear idea of what my loved one wanted. And why would you want your family to have to scramble when you eventually expire?
Aside from the logistics of body disposition and funerals, there is a lot of science involved with death. What, precisely, happens to a corpse when it's cremated? How can a human body be turned to soap (like the Mütter Museum's Soap Lady)? Why do dead bodies change colors? Can you get sick from eating a human brain? You know, fun stuff like that.
This is why I consider Caitlin Doughty a science communicator. To my knowledge, she's never claimed this label herself. But, her mission, her subject, and her delivery have all the hallmarks of great science communication. She takes a very complex topic and makes it fun to learn about. She doesn't deliver dry lectures on death and dying, but entertaining and easily digestible tidbits of information that help her audience understand the subject. She's funny, relatable, and although she takes her mission very seriously, she's not heavy-hearted in her delivery.
There's a reason her YouTube channel has over a million subscribers. There's a reason her books have been on The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. There's a reason people like Terry Gross from NPR want to interview her. That reason is that she's good at what she does.
This is the first in my new series of science communication profiles. As an aspiring SciComm author, I think it's important to identify and highlight women who are outstanding in the field. College career advisors say to find someone who has the job you want and figure out how they got there. I think that's good advice for anyone. Our idols help motivate and inspire us, no matter what field they're in. I hope you enjoy reading about my idols and how they help shape our concepts of the world.
Read/watch/learn more here:
Caitlin Doughty - http://caitlindoughty.com
The Order of the Good Death - http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com
NPR's Fresh Air Interview - https://www.npr.org/transcripts/352765943
TED Talk - https://www.ted.com/talks/caitlin_doughty_a_burial_practice_that_nourishes_the_planet?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare
Reacting to Comments on my TED Talk - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFPNsjgrM64
XOXO Festival - https://youtu.be/35P6XSw5HMk
Ask a Mortician - https://www.youtube.com/user/OrderoftheGoodDeath
Mütter Museum's Soap Lady - http://muttermuseum.org/exhibitions/the-soap-lady/
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