This millennial mortician is changing the face of the traditional funeral industry

“Millennials are used to examining old industries and figuring out if they’re still serving the public today," said Caitlin Doughty. "No industry is less serving to the public than the funeral industry."
Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles-based mortician and death awareness advocate.
Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles-based mortician and death awareness advocate.Mara Zehler

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By Rosie Colosi

Caitlin Doughty has always been fascinated by death. “Today is Halloween. Finally it’s come,” read the only entry in the 8-year-old girl’s Hello Kitty diary. Now at 35, Doughty is a death awareness advocate and mortician at the forefront of an industry revolution.

“Everything in our culture is about hiding death from us,” Doughty said in an interview with Know Your Value. “You can’t grow up in America without this fear of it.”

Doughty, who lives in Los Angeles, has traveled all over the world to study how different cultures treat death. Her goal is to inform her practice of demystifying funerals and infusing the end of life with positivity.

Women and death care

Many people stereotypically think of morticians as older men who have been running the family funeral home business for decades. But that hasn’t always been the case. Preparing a body for burial used to be a domestic task done by women to display the dead in homes for viewing. The idea of embalming the dead began after the Civil War, when grieving families in the north wanted to transport soldiers home from the south. The bodies had to be embalmed to preserve them for the long train ride. And as a result, an entire professional funeral industry eventually sprung up, one that was overwhelmingly male.

Over the last few decades, however, the industry has being undergoing a radical change. Women are entering the profession in droves. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, more than 60 percent of students studying mortuary science are female. The NFDA attributes the shift to the realization that women are adept at many of the traits funeral directors need to possess: communication skills, compassion, a desire to help comfort those coping with a death, as well as organizational and event-planning skills. There is also a shift away from the family funeral business: the American Board of Funeral Service Education noted that 85 percent of new enrollees had no prior association with funeral service.

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Life after death

Doughty didn’t necessarily foresee her unique career path. After college, she was living in San Francisco when she decided to apply for a job at a crematory “as a crazy idea” to see what was going on behind the scenes. At 22, while driving corpses around the city, she felt an immediate sense of purpose—she knew it was important work and wanted to be more transparent with grieving families. She wanted to get rid of the notion that “We’re the experts. You’re the confused grieving family.”

Even though she was at a job filled with men, she had very supportive bosses. “There was never any hint of ‘the little lady can’t do it,’” said Doughty.

In 2011, she began an educational non-profit organization called The Order of the Good Death, which describes itself as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” The group spurred a “death positive” movement, aiming to decrease our collective fear of death by educating people about funerals, death and what happens to our bodies. Doughty also runs an extremely popular “Ask a Mortician” series on YouTube.

Giving the gift of clarity

The practical application of The Order’s principles is Doughty’s funeral home in Los Angeles, aptly named “Clarity Funerals.”

“We want to provide interactive experiences for grieving families to empower them,” said Doughty. Relatives and friends are invited to be as much a part of the death care process as they wish—they can prepare their loved one’s makeup, they can dress them, they can even push the deceased into the cremation machine. Clarity offers a simple template and helps the family make informed decisions about how they’d like to say goodbye. For example, rather than just standing and making small talk at a viewing, families can ask mourners to handwrite letters that will be placed under the deceased’s hand in the casket, if there is one.

Clarity provides alternatives to traditional caskets as part of the green funeral movement, which aims to make death low-impact on the environment. Rather than requiring big, heavy, expensive caskets, green funerals utilize decomposable wicker caskets. They also encourage natural burials, in which with the bodies are buried in simple, biodegradable shrouds without embalming chemicals. Doughty said that clients seek out her funeral home specifically for these types of services; most bury their loved ones in a simple shroud or decorate a cardboard cremation container to make it beautiful.

The 'millennial mortician'

Doughty laughed her "millennial mortician" label, but admitted that the title is true. “Millennials are used to examining old industries and figuring out if they’re still serving the public today; no industry is less serving to the public than the funeral industry," she said.

As a part of the revolution, Doughty is answering fascinating questions from the generation in her new Q & A book, "Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death." Doughty doesn’t have children herself, but she noticed whole families attending her speaking events. She wanted to make sure that adults don’t transfer their own fears to their children. “Lots of adults never move past their 5-year-old death education,” Doughty said. She wanted to give kids the freedom to ask anything.

Doughty hopes that by understanding death, we’ll find it a little less daunting. Funerals are one of the few times we unplug and attempt to be our most present selves, so we should use that time to the fullest. “Funerals are a gift to the living,” Doughty said.