Caitlin Doughty is a Los Angeles-based mortician, death theorist, and the founder of The Order of the Good Death.
Recently, a follower of the Order made a comment to the effect of “it’s wrong for you to make it seem like working with death is easy.”
Easy? Record-skip. No. Dear god no. There is a difference between making facing death look worthwhile, and making facing death look easy. Hell no it isn’t easy— but it is worthwhile. If you’re doing it right (and by “right” I mean not attempting to deny death) coming to terms with your own mortality will be the most difficult thing you ever do.
After finishing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy began to read the great philosophers, trying to summon the desire to endure the death and destruction that plagued human existence. He wasn’t an old man. He was young and healthy, a successful writer with a wife and family, at the highest point of vigor. He just could not accept that death could (and very easily would) take it all away from him.
Tolstoy wrote in his “Notes of a Madman” that he awoke at two o’clock in the morning and was suddenly “seized by a despair, a fear, a terror such as I have never known before.” Here he questions himself:
This is ridiculous,’ I told myself. ‘Why am I so depressed, what am I afraid of?’
‘Of me,’ answered Death. ‘I am here.’
‘A cold shudder ran over my skin. Yes, Death. It will come, it is already here, even though it has nothing to do with me now… My whole being ached with the need to live, the right to live, and, at the same moment I felt death at work. And it was awful, being torn apart inside. I tried to shake off my terror. I found the stump of a candle in a brass candlestick and lighted it. The reddish flame, the candle, shorter than the candlestick, all told me the same story: there is nothing in life, nothing exists but death, and death should not be!”
Tolstoy thought he was a rational man. When I started working in the funeral industry I thought I was a rational woman. But faced with the understanding of death in its true, raw form, there is sometimes nothing to do but vomit, spit, cry. As we both did, him in a dark room at an inn in Arzamas, Russia, me at a crematory in Northern California.
Even today it is difficult for me to understand those who insist they don’t need to think about death because, “I’ve thought about it, it’s really no big deal for me.” If you have really thought about it, mourned yourself, all you love, the human race, the world, then you must feel as Tolstoy’s man before death. Trembling. Terrified. Humbled.
But that doesn’t mean it is not also a glorious thing. Making us more self aware, making us stronger creatures, creatures that live and rejoice in the fierce realities of life.
May we all come to the point where we see dying as Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran did.
For what is it to die, but to stand in the sun and melt into the wind? And when the Earth has claimed our limbs, then we shall truly dance.”
To dance with death is a not an uptight waltz, but a frenetic dance, full of ups and downs, swirls and violence. I would never pretend it was anything but. If you are attempting to face your own mortality you should take your own stability and mental health very seriously. I do. And I would never tell you otherwise.