Bizarre Book Club: Caitlin Doughty From Ask A Mortician

I read this book in a single day, which should tell you something. No, the book wasn’t two pages long.

I chanced upon a YouTube channel called Ask A Mortician and found her not only informative on all things death related, but also funny and charming. Caitlin Doughty seemed like someone I’d want to hang around with.

This in turn led me to her book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (And Other Lessons From The Crematory). I expected and enjoyed the anecdotes of working with corpses and the awkwardness of experiencing another culture’s grieving rituals for the first time (the segment on the Chinese family is fascinating).

The horror from outsiders, too, wasn’t a surprise, such as a hospital security guard’s distaste at her picking up ex-babies, that “it didn’t matter how many times I smiled at her, expressed my new-on-the-job status with bumbling Hugh Grant– esque apologies. This woman had decided that I was dirty and deviant. Handmaiden to the underworld.”

I also anticipated moments that made me laugh out loud, such as when “the family had placed a Häagen-Dazs coffee-and-almond ice-cream bar between her hands like a Viking warrior’s weapon. Those are my favourite. So I yelled, involuntarily, “Those are my favourite!””

What I didn’t expect were the many literary quotes and philosophical thoughts. Not that I didn’t think mortuary workers were capable of them, but I didn’t expect to be thinking about them so much afterwards. Caitlin believes the West’s relationship with death has gone astray, that “death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said , “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.”

She feels that hiding death away and pretending it doesn’t happen is creating greater fear of the  inevitable end. She advocates for a more natural, eco-friendly approach, and for not allowing funeral homes to dictate to the family how the final proceedings should go. I’ll let her explain it in this Ted Talk:

She also believes (more in America, not so much here) that embalming is often sold to people as the only way and is expensive and often unnecessary:

At first I thought, well, is it really so important to be more involved with a body before a funeral? How much can that really change things? Then I thought hard on her point that we also hide old age, stashing the elderly and infirm in sometimes substandard homes, while other cultures move ageing relatives in with them to deal with the consequences of the years together. I wonder if maybe she’s right. What do all of you think?

Caitlin also began The Order of the Good Death, where “funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists explor(e) ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” I’d like to go to one of their talks one day. I’ve also pre-ordered her book From Here To Eternity, in which she travelled far and wide gathering information on the death practices of various civilisations.

As an added bonus, here are a few fun videos from her Ask A Mortician series:

Crematory Scandal That Changed The Death Industry

Victorian STANDING Corpse Photography?

The Punished Suicide

The Self Mummified Monks

Medieval Zombies?!

La Pascualita: Mannequin or Corpse Bride?

Lead Based Make Up Tutorial For Spring

The creepy world of automatons

What is it about automatons that some people find so disturbing? Perhaps it’s hard for us to understand when a thing that looks so much like us has…nothing behind the eyes.

Yet they’re amazingly clever, and here are a few to prove this.

This mortuary scene was created by John Dennison. Follow the link to read more about him:

This Japanese lady shoots arrows while a tiny man turns cogs beneath her. I like that tiny man, I’d like him to be my friend:

This was an advert to go outside a butcher’s shop and is now on display at The Museum of Automatons in La Rochelle, France:

Marvin’s Marvelous Museum in Michigan (say it quick, I dare you) is home to this lovely Hell monster:

This modern creation is based on an 18th century occult magician:

Well, there we are! Sleep tight, don’t let the soulless monsters bite.

19th century Parisian death entertainment

heaven-and-hell-paris-madeleine-swannLa Belle Epoch (or golden era, roughly 1871 to 1914) of Paris certainly enjoyed life on the dark side. Not only were gory horror plays performed for those looking for late night thrills, a person could chat about philosophy and the meaning of death over a coffin table.

The Grand Guignol was a style of theatre steeped in gore and fear that continued right up until 1962. Rich and poor alike would go to a performance and prepare to be terrified. Read more here.

The Heaven and Hell nightclubs were fantastically intricate drinking spots. The heaven-and-hell-paris2-madeleine-swannCabaret of the Inferno was described thusly:

“Enter and be damned, the Evil One awaits you!” growled a chorus of rough voices as we hesitated before the scene confronting us. Near us was suspended a caldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from “Faust” on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.”

After this spectacle patrons would visit the Cabaret of the Sky, a much more divine affair.

The club I find most intriguing, however, is the Cabaret of Nothingness:

“Large, heavy, wooden coffins, resting on biers, were ranged about the room in an order suggesting the recent happening of a frightful catastrophe. The walls were decorated with skulls and bones, skeletons in grotesque attitudes, battle-pictures, and guillotines in action. Death, carnage, assassination were the dominant note, set in black hangings and illuminated with mottoes on death.”

To read more about these fascinating clubs visit here.

Well, there we have it, much more interesting than Euro Disney don’t you think?