Ever since I was a little girl, I have held close the most precious of nighttime rituals. I lie down, I close my eyes, and I stare deep into the mortality of myself and those I love; bombarded by visions of death, decay and aging until I fall asleep and subconsciously turn these images into nightmares. This isn’t a choice, really, so much as a byproduct of the comorbid chronic anxiety and OCD that bring with them intrusive thoughts. By day, I deny the fact of death to try and exist, but by night, those repressed thoughts come to the surface.
My less morbid nighttime ritual is watching YouTube videos, which is how I happened upon the channel Ask a Mortician, where LA-based mortician Caitlin Doughty answers all of our grisliest questions about death. This might seem like a poor choice of bedtime viewing for someone so anxious, but when I am afraid of something, I try to learn as much about it as possible until it becomes less unimaginably terrifying.
Doughty has made death her life’s work. After questioning her family’s own refusal to talk about death, she started her career in a crematorium and began to advocate for healthier attitudes around death shortly after. Her YouTube videos form a small part of her work in demythologising mortality, which includes founding a death acceptance organization, writing three books on the topic, and opening Undertaking LA, a non-profit, alternative funeral home that puts families first. I initially understood her videos as simply satisfying our culture’s morbid curiosity, but now I understand her work as a crusade against our ingrained denial; Doughty wants us to understand death, not dodge it.
Speaking to her Deathlings (fans) underneath video titles as clickable as “WHAT HAPPENED TO HIROSHIMA’S DEAD?”, “WOULD YOUR CAT OR DOG EAT YOUR CORPSE?” and “Backyard Burial, Cannibalism, & More!” Doughty delves into topics that could make even the hardiest viewer squeamish. From necrophilia to coffin birth to the preservation of bodies, she handles each topic with such deftness and humour that it’s hard to feel anything but entertained and educated. The videos answer questions I never knew I had, but understanding how our bodies work (and that they are all mortal and fallible) has been invaluable in getting over my fears.
I deal with grief the Western way, i.e, Not At All. Through Doughty, I learned that I suffer from “Death Denial”, something that many of us are guilty of; we deliberately separate death from our daily lives. While I voraciously consumed the more gory videos of hers the way many of us do true crime, it took me a few weeks to bring myself to watch titles like “Overcoming DEATH DENIAL in your family”, “7 Habits of Highly Effective Death Positive People” and even “Grief Talk”. Disasters, corpses, and serial killers are interesting, but I can remove myself from events that seem extraordinary; the nitty gritty of grief and very ordinary mortality is what I am most squeamish about. The few times in my life I’ve been confronted with the death of a friend or close family member, I have shut down, finding it impossible to reconcile the image of the lively person I knew with the corpse they now are.
Because of our culture’s refusal to discuss death, I have felt as if I am alone in difficulty facing the mortality of those I love. But what I have learned from watching Doughty’s videos is that I am not alone, and that I am one in over 750,000 subscribers who want to be faced with their own mortality; who perhaps, even, find comfort in it.
My lifelong chronic nightmares bring the anxieties that I shove down during the day to the forefront of my consciousness. Since I started watching Doughty’s videos, I thought I would have more of them; I am very susceptible to the images of death, decay and violence that are prevalent in her work. But, curled up watching her friendly face speak warmly as she forces us to confront our mortality while being understanding of the reasons we avoid doing so, the nightmares have abated slightly. I can think about death, and I have learned to confront the reasons why I struggle to. Caitlin Doughty succeeded in encouraging me to face my fears and unpack my beliefs where all my other efforts have failed. In indulging my morbid curiosity where so many have enforced silence, Doughty has made a Deathling out of this anxious death denialist.