The voice behind the popular web series “Ask a Mortician” exposes the grisly, hilarious details of working in a crematorium—and argues that everyone needs to be more closely connected to the realities of death.
Your book is often vividly gruesome—and just as often very funny. What do you think is the source of your “gallows humor”?
My parents are both very clever people. I grew up around humor. It just made sense to apply it to conversations about death and mortality. Especially since these heavy topics can often be easier to take in if they’re delivered with a lighter touch.
You write that the day-to-day realities of working in a crematorium “were more savage than I had anticipated.” What surprised you most in your first days at the crematory?
The bodies were savage, in the sense that I had never seen so many corpses in one place. But the real savagery was that the corpses were essentially abandoned. Our funeral home came to pick them up and take them away from their families and store them in a giant freezer. I was the only person there when the bodies were cremated. Most people have no idea they can be much more involved in the death care of the people they love.
Your obsession with death began when you were 8 years old and saw a child plunge from an escalator in a shopping mall. Working in the mortuary seems to have brought some resolution to your obsession. Was writing the book also cathartic in some way?
Absolutely. Part of writing the book was to let other people know that we’re all obsessed with death, to a degree. Death is the human condition, and it’s perfectly OK to be fascinated by it, perfectly OK to want information about what goes on behind the scenes. It’s not morbid, or deviant, or wrong. In a way, writing the book helped me to fully embrace that idea as well.
You’re critical of the modern American funeral industry. But you are also critical of Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of funeral home practices, The American Way of Death (1963). What’s your beef with Mitford’s book?
I try to make it clear that I have a great deal of respect for what Mitford did. However, I think she was so focused on subverting the old men of the traditional funeral industry that the book ended up being pro-direct cremation. Direct cremation (cremation with no services of any kind) is the cheapest alternative, but it doesn’t allow for something I believe we need, which is to care for and interact with our dead bodies. To have the body just disappear can hurt the grieving process.
You’re on a kind of mission in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Why is it so important that people have a closer connection with death?
I am on a mission! I would never claim to be an objective reporter. Death affects everything we do as humans, and we’re much healthier when we understand this. Other than television and film, we never see death any more, it’s not a part of our daily lives. We view this as “progress” but I don’t believe it is. We need the reality of death to remind us that we are not immortal, and our actions have real consequences.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.