Recommended: Ask a Mortician

With Halloween today, I decided to take the liberty and promote the content of someone else whose field of expertise is very relevant to the hallowed theme of this eve: death.

Death is something that our culture has sensationalized and stigmatized. In both these extremes, we have little sense of the pragmatic realities of our bodies after we die. Caitlyn Doughty’s campaign of corpse education asks people to grasp the truth that corpses are humans too, and to reflect on how our thoughts and feelings about corpses reflect that which we recognize and wish to forget about our humanity.

So that’s my recommend, but if you want more today, I have a little spooky story too…

Early last week, I walked around a bookstore and caught sight of this book cover:

Admittedly, this cover was destined for me. I love cats and am easily drawn to snicker over the paradox that is the hapless, fluffy, serial killer, feline companion. I picked up the book, thought about taking a picture of it to share with a similarly-minded friend, then put it back. I thought about sharing it with the family member with whom I was shopping, but then didn’t. I merely read the inside jacket. The book looked fun and funny, but I opted not to buy that day and moved on.

Later that week, I got a suggestion in YouTube for a video about the corpses of the Romanov family. Feeling the whim of morbid curiosity, I gave it a try and was impressed with the presenter, Caitlyn Doughty. Rather than taking a forensic look at dead bodies, she was a mortician who took more interest in the fate of dead bodies. That was an angle I found interesting, and while her goofiness sometimes gets too cheesy for my taste, her earnestness is always apparent. I watched a few more of her videos and subscribed to the channel “Ask a Mortician.”

Some few videos into her series, something started to tickle my memory. I had just seen something by a mortician. Something about what happens to dead bodies. Something cheeky and yet earnest. No…surely not!

Surely so.

How did Google know? I am very stingy with my mic and camera app permissions on my phone. Besides, I had thought about taking a picture and sharing it with a friend, but then hadn’t. I had thought about showing it to my companion family member, but then didn’t. So who is watching me? How did Google know?!

Well, maybe Doughty’s star is just rising. After all, I’m sharing her with you now too. I’ve had an interest in corpses by accident of an old conversation with my dad way back. Dad always wanted me to go into medicine. His philosophy was that I’d mature just as the baby boomers started slipping into senility, giving me perfect job security. My response was that by that logic, I should just skip the depressing healthcare phase and make my career off their corpses. That was a step too macabre for my dad, a baby boomer himself, but in my mind a little parallel world broke off where I went on to do just that. I still wonder about alternate reality me and what I’m doing over there.

Curiosity aside, the reason I am going so far as to recommend Doughty’s YouTube channel is because she functions beyond just sensationalism. She highlights the social concerns and considerations about how we handle death, from religious to practical to cultural matters. I haven’t explored the full channel yet, but here are some videos I’d promote to represent the range of insight she gives into her field.

For just some morbid curiosity, try:

For the environmental concerns of corpse care:

For some of the social complications of corpse care:

Some technical insight:

I think the reason why these videos have stuck with me is because they revealed to me a lot of things I didn’t know about bodies. For one, that corpses aren’t inherent health hazards. It doesn’t have big consequences on my life, but it just ran contrary to what I’ve been taught about corpses through cultural osmosis. For another thing, hearing about the fates of bodies after life is gone reminds me to reflect on how we know we are our bodies, that knowing someone’s body is now just a thing –something that can be put on display, stolen, defaced, or let to disappear into nature– still doesn’t keep us from seeing their body as someone. I feel a little pity and horror for Haydn that his head was stolen and ultimately he’s now buried with someone else’s head in his tomb. But Haydn doesn’t really care! The other side of this reflection is remembering that we also aren’t the sum of our bodies. What happens to our bodies after death has no relevance to our life, whether temporal or eternal. Yet still we put so much vanity into our bodies, and Doughty’s videos explore the whys and why-nots of doing so.

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