Caitlin Doughty: A Mortician on a Mission

The Infinity Burial Suit, otherwise known as the Mushroom Death Suit, has threads bearing spores of specialized mushroom species running through it much like the mycelium (root-like part) of a mushroom itself. Specialized mushrooms? Yes, the best ones for devouring you and your lifetime of accumulated toxins, and returning you as clean compost to nurture new life. Better still, the suit looks like ninja pyjamas, making you the best dressed person at your own funeral.

Ideas like these used to be considered weird and taboo in the mainstream of our sanitized and death-phobic culture, but people like Caitlin Doughty are changing that. A founder and figurehead of the Death Positive Movement, Doughty is a mortician on a mission. A mission to help a society that recoils from the sight of the “most natural and universal” thing there is to become connected and comfortable with the cycles of life and death. Also an author and media personality, she founded the death acceptance organization, Order of the Good Death, in 2011.

Doughty advocates reform to our death processes, promoting death at home with the washing and dressing of the body done by loved ones. She also advocates for reform to the funeral industry itself, as part of a larger Green Burial movement. The embalming and burial processes as we know them today are extremely toxic, wasteful, and expensive. Even cremation has a large carbon footprint. By mending our fractured relationship with the inevitability of death, perhaps we can also stop wasting the potential for a powerful parting gift: returning our body to the earth it came from.

Aquamation, which dissolves a body in an alkaline solution, takes only twelve hours to do what nature would take twenty years to do, and leaves only a few bone fragments behind. Natural burials avoid embalming and use a shroud or biodegradable coffin, so the burial site does not pollute the ground but enriches it. The fear of pathogens from untreated bodies is greatly overstated, bacteria that make us sick are different ones than those that decompose us.

Green burial methods also address the concern of what to do as some cities run out of room in cemeteries. The architecture of death and dying is under its own reform, with leaders like architect and urban designer Alison Killing tackling the idea of better deaths and the urban infrastructure that would support them. This includes making hospitals less scary; more comforting, and looking at other ways architecture can have a positive impact on end of life care. She states, “Where we die is a key part of how we die.”

Only in the past hundred years did our society become so detached from death. Now considered morbid in polite society, talking about our eventual deaths, about where we want to die, what will happen to our bodies, has been pushed out of day to day life and hidden in hospitals and funeral homes.

This allows us to deny death until the last possible moment, often creating great anxiety for the dying, and a lack of closure for the bereaved. Embracing our mortality empowers us to live fully in the present with grace and humility, understanding we are a part of nature and will return to it, cherishing each other for the miracles we are.

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