The Buddha—of Buddhism fame—was born Siddhartha Gautama in what is now Nepal. Young Siddhartha was not born enlightened; he spent the first twenty-nine years of his life ensconced in palatial luxury. Siddhartha’s father, the king, had been warned that his son would grow into a great spiritual thinker if he came into contact with suffering or death. Naturally, his father preferred Siddhartha end up a king like him rather than a measly thinker, so he banned death of any kind within the palace walls.
When Siddhartha reached twenty-nine he announced his desire to explore the surrounding city. His father agreed but arranged things so that his son saw only young, healthy people engaging in young, healthy-people activities. But the gods were having none of that: they sent an old man with gray hair, missing teeth, and a limp to surprise Siddhartha, who had never before seen old age. Siddhartha next saw a man infected with plague and finally, the pièce de résistance, a corpse burning on a wooden plank. Having confronted old age, sickness, death, and nothingness all in one trip, Siddhartha renounced palace life and became a monk. The rest, as they say, is religious history.
In the Siddhartha story, the crude physicality of the burning corpse is not a negative force but a positive one. It catalyzed his transformation. Encountering a corpse forced the man who would be Buddha to see life as a process of unpredictable and constant change. It was life without corpses, trapped behind the palace walls, that had prevented him from reaching enlightenment.
Westwind Cremation & Burial, a family-owned mortuary in Oakland, California, changed my understanding of death. Less than a year after donning my corpse-colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world.
Corpses keep the living tethered to reality. I had lived my entire life up until I began working at Westwind relatively corpse-free. Now I had access to scores of them—stacked in the crematory freezer. They forced me to face my own death and the deaths of those I loved. No matter how much technology may become our master, it takes only a human corpse to toss the anchor off that boat and pull us back down to the firm knowledge that we are glorified animals that eat and shit and are doomed to die. We are all just future corpses.
Jeremy, the body on the prep room table today, was a fifty-three-year-old man covered in tattoos. Half of his life had been spent in prison. Many of his tattoos were self-inked and had faded into a dull green. Numbers and letters dotted his arms, torso, and back. Jeremy also had tattoos that were brand-new, from his time post-prison. They were colorful images of birds and waves and other metaphors for freedom. He had left prison and sought liberation in a new, different life. The tattoos were stunning. The concept of the body as canvas becomes more powerful if the canvas is dead.
As I started to wash Jeremy, the bell at Westwind’s front gate rang. I pulled off my gloves and headed into the courtyard. Before I could even muster a “Hello, come in,” a woman, who subsequently introduced herself as Jeremy’s sister, squealed, “Hey there, six-footer!”
“Oh yes, well, I’m pretty tall, you’re righ—”
“My, my, my, what a big, beautiful girl you are!” she shrieked, wrapping me in a huge hug. I thanked her.
I showed Jeremy’s sister into our arrangement room, where she pulled out a lollipop and began grinding it down with her teeth while furiously tapping her foot. I didn’t want to make assumptions, but if pressed I might have guessed she was high on some manner of amphetamine. She would not have been the first family member I had spoken to in such a condition, the burden of selling low-cost funeral services in Oakland.
“Honey, here’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “I want a nice funeral for Jeremy in San Francisco, then he’s gonna be buried at the veterans’ cemetery in Sac Valley. I’m gonna drive behind you all the way.” The cadence of her speech synched up with the tapping of her foot.
“You’re aware the cemetery is two hours away?” I said.
“Y’all are gonna cremate him if I don’t keep an eye on you. I can’t be sure you didn’t do it already.”
“Ma’am, the veterans’ cemetery is expecting the body to arrive in its casket for burial. We’re going to deliver it there on Thursday,” I explained.
“You’re not listening. That’s what I’m saying; his body isn’t in any casket, you cremated him without my permission.”
I tried to explain in the nicest way possible that it made no logistical or financial sense for Westwind to cremate Jeremy and then deliver an empty casket to the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, but she wasn’t buying it.
Jeremy’s sister wasn’t the only one who assumed we death workers were up to no good. People had wild theories about what we did with the bodies. Elderly women would call the crematory, their voices shaky and slightly confused.
“Westwind Cremation and Burial, this is Caitlin,” I would answer.
“Hello, dear, I’m Estelle,” said one woman. “You are going to cremate me when I die. I have the paperwork with your company and it’s all paid for. But I saw a thing on the news this morning about you all burning the bodies together dear, is that right?”
“No, no ma’am, everyone is cremated on their own here,” I said firmly.
“They said you put a pile of bodies on a bonfire and there is big pile of ashes afterwards and you just scoop from that pile,” Estelle said.
“Ma’am, I’m not sure who ‘they’ are.”
“The news people,” she said.
“Well, I promise they aren’t talking about us here at Westwind. Everyone gets their own serial number and is cremated alone,” I assured her.
She sighed. “Well, OK dear. I’ve lived so long and I’m just real afraid about dying and being left in a pile of bodies.”
Estelle wasn’t alone in her fears. One woman called to ask if bodies were kept hanging on meat hooks in the refrigerator like sides of beef. An enraged gentleman informed me we shouldn’t be charging for a sea scattering because all that meant was “dumpin’ the ashes in the toilet with a packet of salt and flushing.”
It broke my heart to hear them, even the ones who were screaming at me. Holy crap, you’ve been thinking that? I thought. You think you’re going to die and be hung on a meat hook before being thrown into a bonfire of corpses and flushed down the toilet?
Hearing these fears took me back to being eight years old and believing spitting into my shirt was keeping my mother alive. I began to experiment with complete honesty. Everyone who asked these sorts of questions got brutally clear answers. If they asked about how the bones became ash, I’d say, “Well, there’s this machine called the Cremulator. . . .” If they asked whether their body would rot before cremation, I’d say, “See, the bacteria start eating you from the inside out as soon as you die, but body refrigeration really puts a stop to that.” The strange thing was, the more honest I was, the more satisfied and grateful people were.
Holding a witness cremation—though it gave me palpitations—solved many of these problems. People saw what was actually happening—saw the body, saw it glide into the cremation retort alone, even symbolically took part in the process by pushing the button to start the flames. The retort may have been a huge machine opening its mouth to eat your dead mother, but pushing the button offered a participatory ritual nonetheless.
I felt a growing compulsion to do more, to change how the public understood death and the death
industry. There was an admirable group of women in the Bay Area working toward this change, who performed funerals at the dead person’s home, referring to themselves as Death Midwives or Death Doulas. They had not been trained or licensed by the funeral industry but saw themselves as New Agey vestiges of a time past, when the body was taken care of by the family.
Prior to the Civil War, as previously mentioned, death and dying were strongly associated with the home. “Home is where the corpse is,” they would say. (They didn’t say that, I made it up, but they might as well have said it.) Since corpses were a domestic affair, the duty to care for them fell to women. Women baked the meat pies, did the laundry, washed the corpses.
In many ways, women are death’s natural companions. Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but also a death. Samuel Beckett wrote that women “give birth astride of a grave.” Mother Nature is indeed a real mother, creating and destroying in a constant loop.
If the matriarch of your family didn’t want to wash and shroud the body herself, the family could hire “layers-out of the dead.” In the early nineteenth century it was mostly women who had this job, a tradition brought over to the American colonies from England, where it had long been the accepted practice. There were midwives for babies and layers-out for corpses; women to bring you into the world and women to take you out of it.
Most of Westwind’s clients didn’t realize the dead body was theirs to take care of as they wished. They didn’t have to hand Dad over to a funeral home, or even hire a death midwife. That body, for better or worse, belonged to them. Not only was caring for your own dead legal in California, dead bodies are far from the nefarious creatures the modern death industry has made them out to be. In Muslim communities, it is considered a “meritorious deed” to wash and shroud the dead in a ritual washing known as Ghusl. The person who performs the Ghusl is chosen by the dying man or woman themselves. Men are washed by men and women are washed by women. Selection is an honor and a sacred obligation to fulfill.
In centuries past, before society fully understood bacteria and germs, outbreaks of disease, from cholera to the Black Death, were believed to originate from “bad air” floating like a mist off corpses. Larger cities took to burying their dead far outside city limits. While it’s true that bodies create offensive sights and smells, a dead human body poses very little threat to a living one—the bacteria involved in decomposition are not the same bacteria that cause disease.
A few weeks before my encounter with tattooed Jeremy and his sister, Westwind received a visit from Miss Nakazawa, a young woman whose mother had died at home. She wanted to keep her mother’s body in the house for a few more hours after she died to say her good-byes, but she said, “The police detective told me I had to call you guys right away because she had diabetes and keeping the body any longer might harm my family.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, he told you what?” I replied, my jaw on the floor.
“He told me we had to have a mortuary come pick her up right away or the body will make us sick.”
To recap: a police detective thought this family was going to be harmed by diabetes caught from a dead body. He might as well have told her she was going to get AIDS from a toilet seat. Putting aside the misguided idea that someone can “catch” diabetes from another person, much less a corpse, most viruses and bacteria, even those that could potentially cause disease, only live for a few additional hours in a dead body. The rare virus that survives longer (for example, HIV, up to sixteen days) poses no more harm in a dead body than in a living body. It’s more dangerous to your health to fly on an airplane than it is to be in the same room as a corpse.
Miss Nakazawa had contacted another funeral home before Westwind, but was told her mother absolutely had to be embalmed if the family wanted to see her again. “We don’t want Mom embalmed,” she said. “She was a Buddhist and didn’t want that, but the funeral director told me we had to embalm the body for health reasons.”
Great. So two “professionals” in one day told this woman that her dead mother was a ticking time bomb of highly hazardous deadness that was going to infect her whole family. Embalmers embalm because they think it makes the corpse look better, because they’ve been told it’s what’s “right” and “decent,” and because it makes it easier to control the viewing. Also, they get paid for it. Not because the microorganisms present in an un-embalmed body pose any threat to a family. Now that we have a sophisticated understanding of germ theory and the science of death, police detectives and funeral professionals have no excuse for saying that proximity to the dead will harm the living.
Because of superstition, unquestioned even among those who should know better, this woman wasn’t given the opportunity to sit with her mother until, as a friend of mine put it, her grieving “felt . . . done, somehow.” She missed her chance for closure. A corpse doesn’t need you to remember it. In fact, it doesn’t need anything anymore—it’s more than happy to lie there and rot away. It is you who needs the corpse. Looking at the body you understand the person is gone, no longer an active player in the game of life. Looking at the body you see yourself, and you know that you, too, will die. The visual is a call to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.
When a death occurs on the Indonesian island of Java, the whole town is obligated to attend the funeral. The body is stripped of clothing, the jaw closed with a cloth tied around the head, and the arms crossed over the chest. Close relatives of the deceased wash the body, holding the corpse on their laps, positioned so the living are soaked in the water as well. The idea of cradling the dead this way, according to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “is called being tegel—able to do something odious, abominable, and horrible without flinching, to stick it out despite an inward fear and revulsion.” The mourners perform this ritual to become iklas, detached from the pain. Embracing and washing the corpse allows them to face their discomfort head-on, and move to a place where “their hearts are already free.”
Even if she didn’t realize it, this is the type of closure Jeremy’s sister wanted as well. After she left Westwind, at last convinced Jeremy’s body hadn’t been cremated on the sly, I stood over him in the prep room. I read the story his tattoos told and forced out of my head the uneasy voice that had narrated my rookie months at Westwind, suggesting that perhaps his hand would rise up and seize mine, keeping me forever on edge. Nor did I worry that I was somehow going to mishandle or break his body. I thought instead of what his tattoos meant, and about how some people would look at this man and judge him as dirty, a criminal.
He had been a criminal, but he was also beautiful. I wasn’t there to judge, only to make him clean and dress him in his powder-blue polyester suit with the ruffled tuxedo shirt. Holding up his arm to wash it, I paused: I was comfortable. I wanted other people to know that they could do this too. The washing, the comfort. This confident, stable feeling was available to anyone, if society could overcome the burden of superstition.
Ten months into my job at Westwind, I knew death was the life for me. I wanted to teach people to take care of their own dead like our ancestors used to. Washing the corpse themselves. Taking firm control of their fear. Several options presented themselves. The first was to pack my bags and steal away in the night, leaving the crematory to join the death midwives. This would mean abandoning the funeral industry and the security and legitimacy (deserved or not) it provided. I didn’t mind leaving behind the commercialism and up-selling parts of the industry. The problem was, as a general rule, the midwives were far more, shall we say, spiritual than I was. I had no moral objection to sacred oils, incense, and death chakras, but as much as I respected these women, I did not want to pretend death was a “transition” when I really thought of it as, well, a death. Done. Finito. Secular to a fault.
My second option was to attend mortuary school, but that meant going even deeper into the industry and all its ghastly practices.
“You know you don’t need to go to mortuary school, Caitlin,” Mike (the crematory manager, and my boss) told me. “Why would you put yourself through that?”
Mike had not gone to mortuary school himself, the fortunate beneficiary of a California state law that doesn’t require classwork to become a licensed funeral director. A degree in anything (looking at you, BA in basket weaving), a lack of felonies, and a passing score on a single test, and you’re in the club.
But now that I had embraced my calling as a mortician, I wanted to know everything, understand everything. I could run to the fringes or I could go back to school for another degree, learn how to embalm, and see firsthand what they were teaching. As much as the death midwives’ practices appealed to me, I didn’t want to throw pebbles at an iron fortress. I wanted to be on the inside. I decided to apply to mortuary school. Just in case.
This article was adapted from Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Copyright ©2014 by Caitlin Doughty. Printed with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.