Last week, I got to hear author and revolutionary mortician Caitlin Doughty speak at the Strand as she promoted the paperback release of her New York Times best-selling memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory. My review of Smoke was one of my very first blog posts here on this site back in July, and I’ve been a huge fan of Caitlin for several years. Needless to say, I was delighted to have the opportunity to finally meet her and get my advanced reader’s copy of the book signed. But before she signed any books, Caitlin addressed the modest crowd that was gathered in the Strand’s rare books floor to discuss her work in the death industry and answer any questions we might have about our own mortality. Her talk was both fun and informative, as you might expect from an alternative mortician-cum-Youtube star, and I’ve written up some of the highlights to share with you below:
Caitlin opened up her talk by noting that in countries other than the United States, she has found that people sometimes bring their children to her events—and that these children have by far the best questions about death. This is because children are genuinely curious about the gross and gritty details of death, and the topic has not yet become taboo to them like it has for many adults. Caitlin proceeded to share with us her top five favorite kid death questions. For the curious, these were:
“What do you do with the murders?”
Caitlin acknowledged that working as a crematory operator in a big city, she did come across bodies of people who had been murdered, but the job of investigating the cause of death goes to the coroner who sees the body before the mortician.
“Why does decomposition turn you such crazy colors?”
Caitlin launched into a brief but very informative discussion of exactly what happens during decomposition and the visual effect these processes have on the body. Such a discussion might seem disgusting or distressing, but she had us cracking up, describing how the pH of the blood turns the abdomen “a lovely shade of aquamarine…If I were wearing a dress that color, you would complement me on it.”
“How soon will my eyeballs decompose? Will my cat eat my eyeballs”
Short answer: pretty quickly and yes.
“Do babies die? I don’t want them to die.”
Caitlin comforted the child who asked this with a discussion of the declining mortality rate in recent decades while acknowledging that yes, some babies do still die.
And my personal favorite…
“Have you ever tasted human flesh?”
You might be relieved to hear that no, Caitlin has not. Although she does have a particular fascination with cultures that practice mortuary cannibalism.
After going through these questions, Caitlin read a couple of passages from her book, and then opened the floor for questions. Though shy at first, the crowd participated enthusiastically and asked over a dozen questions ranging from more requests for information on the details of decomp to discussions of the recent Right to Die bill passed in California and asking for advice on how to talk to your loved ones about their end of life plans. People also asked all about the industry and Caitlin’s personal experiences. Some audience members shared their own experiences with death, and one man asked Caitlin for advice about going into the industry himself.
My favorite question that was asked sprang up out of the discussion of children’s curiosity about death: “Have you thought about writing a children’s book?” To the crowd’s delight and then immediate disappointment, Caitlin admitted that she had pitched the idea to her editor (who was sitting right in the middle of the crowd) but he had rejected it. Throughout the rest of the night, we all expressed our enthusiasm for Caitlin’s children’s book and implored her editor to change his mind.
While our dreams of a kid-friendly guide to death may not be realized in the near future, Caitlin does have plans in the works for two more books. I’m particularly excited for the next one, which Caitlin assured us is going to be something completely new. “It’s not going to be Smoke Gets in Your Eyes 2: The Smokier,” she joked. Instead, the book will be an exploration of the landscape of death around the world. Caitlin hopes to teach people about what options are available out there and why many of them are not available in the U.S., delving into the unique history of America’s death industry. I don’t know about you, but this sounds right up my alley!
Overall, Caitlin is definitely one author worth seeing in person. Her great stage presence and well-balanced mix of humor and professionalism that I’ve become familiar with from her Ask a Mortician Youtube series carried over perfectly in person. She had the crowd both laughing and sharing intimate details about their lives. Later, as we lined up to have our books signed, Caitlin engaged enthusiastically with each member of the crowd, asking or answering questions and posing for photos. I’m also pretty sure that Caitlin’s resting facial expression is one that reads, “I am deeply and personally interested in you and what you have to say,” as she looks directly into your soul. I guess it’s a funeral director thing.
Anyway, if you haven’t yet, you should definitely pick up your copy of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (now available in paperback) from any major retailer, or from my IndieBount affiliate link below. Also be sure to follow Caitlin on her website or social media for any news of her upcoming books. (Or keep an eye out here, because I will share with you any news I hear!) If you have read the book or seen her videos, let me know what you think in the comments! What death questions would you ask Caitlin? What do you hope to hear about in her new book? Share your thoughts!