Thursday, 16 November 2017

How Caitlin Doughty Changed My Life (And Death!)

Spiders.  Blood tests.  Vomit.  These are all things guaranteed to strike fear into my heart.  But the biggest fear I had was, for many years, the one thing that can never be avoided.  The one thing we will all eventually face: death.

My fear of death was so enormous that I would freeze in my seat, if I drove past a hearse.  I obsessively watched programmes about ghosts, in an effort to remind myself that death couldn't possibly be the end.  I was so utterly terrified of being buried alive, that I would tell my family that if anything happened to me and I was thought to be dead, I wanted to be buried in a huge crate, with enough room for a bed, several bottles of water, food, tools to aid my escape and a mobile phone and laptop.

Quite what use I thought a phone or a laptop would be underground, I'm not sure, but it eased my fears to imagine having them with me, so I kept on insisting.

There were nights - and I wish I was making this up - where I would lie in bed in the darkness and hold my breath for as long as I could, just to see if I could possibly imagine what death would feel like.

And then one day, I stumbled upon a YouTube page.

It happened entirely by accident.  I had been thinking - for reasons I can't even explain - about the Titanic.  I had decided to see if there were any good documentaries about it on YouTube, to placate my sudden fascination and, as is customary when you dive down a rabbit hole on YouTube, the search results eventually started to get stranger and stranger.  I watched the (awful) alternative ending to James Cameron's 1997 movie.  I saw a Lego version of the Titanic sunk in an outdoor pool.  I spotted - but did not watch - a video insisting that the Titanic was sunk on purpose.  And then a video came up with the title: What Happened To Titanic's Dead?

The thing with my death phobia was that whilst I was totally freaked out by death, I was also weirdly curious about it.  Things seem much scarier when you don't know much about them, after all.  I can vividly remember seeing a sign for a local crematorium, reading "Family Open Day" and being torn between feeling creeped out by such an event and - bizarrely - almost wanting to go along.  I never did nip down to the crematorium's open day, but I did click "play" on that video.

The channel - Ask A Mortician - was hosted by Caitlin Doughty, a real-life mortician, with her own funeral home in America, Undertaking LA.  Two hours later, I was still on the channel, glued to the screen as I watched videos on all kinds of subjects, from dressing a corpse to the decaying process and everything in between.

And a weird thing happened.

As the veil was lifted from this frightening subject, it started to lose its horror.  To my enormous surprise, the longer I watched these videos, the more I found myself considering my own mortality and not feeling the same fear I had always felt.  Instead, I realised that I was starting to see myself as a being made of organic matter, who therefore has a natural shelf-life, so to speak.  Death - that big, dreadful thing that made me so terribly afraid - was just the end of life.  And by shying away from it, we were not only making it more frightening than it needs to be, but we were stopping ourselves from taking a more active role in the process of caring for those who are dying or who have died.

Caitlin Doughty

Of course, it helps (a lot!) that Caitlin is enthusiastic, passionate about changing the way death is treated and very funny.  Her dark sense of humour appealed to mine immediately and her personality and easy way of discussing big and potentially scary subjects was a huge reason that I kept watching for so long.

But, once I had finally turned off my laptop and rejoined the land of the living, the memory of what I had seen remained firmly lodged in my brain.  I realised that I was thinking about death in a whole new way.  Yes, the unknown quality of it was still a little unnerving and of course I don't want to think about the deaths of any of my loved ones, but in terms of accepting my own mortality (and embracing the need for open conversations about the end of life), I realised I had turned a corner.

In fact, I hadn't so much turned a corner, as I'd crossed the street, walked round several corners and entered an entirely new part of town.

I wanted to lift the veil further.  I wanted to know what happened to the dead and what choices we have in terms of how much involvement we have when a family member or friend passes away, as well as what choices we have for ourselves.  The more I demystified the subject, the less frightening it was.  I even found myself using a new phrase: "I view death as just a really good lie-in."  And I found myself meaning it.

within a week or two of binge-watching Caitlin's YouTube videos, I had ordered her first book, too.

Reading it (and yes, I will be getting her latest book once Christmas is out of the way) opened my eyes even further.  I was completely captivated by Caitlin's vision of a world in which death is not some big, frightening prospect, but a natural fact of life which we embrace.  I was fascinated by her ideas about home funerals and the families of the deceased being more involved in the preparing of the body - if they wish to be.  After all, isn't that the last thing we can do for someone we love?  

But perhaps most importantly of all, Caitlin's frankness on the subject of death was what really stayed with me.  I had always been one of those people who, if asked if I'd like to live forever, had gleefully shrieked: "OF COURSE!"

It was a shock to my system to hear myself saying "actually, I'm not sure I would."

As Caitlin so rightly says, it's death that influences our lives more than anything.  The idea that some day we will be gone is often what gives us the kick up the backside we need in order to take a risk, do something life-changing or really try to make a difference to the world.  If we knew we'd all live forever, would we bother so much?  Isn't it the knowledge that we have a finite amount of time on this planet that encourages us to squeeze every last drop out of life that we can?!

It was a bizarre feeling to realise that in the space of just a few weeks, I had gone from someone who cringed at the word "coffin," to someone who was determined to add her voice to those campaigning for greater openness on the subject of death.  I'd gone from someone who looked the other way when passing my local funeral home, to someone who wondered how much involvement they allow families or friends to have, in the wake of a death.

Indeed, armed with my newly gained insider knowledge of the post-death process, I found myself considering what I actually wanted to happen in the event of my own death.  Gone was the longing for a large crate and a long list of supplies.  I told my parents I wanted a natural burial, with a tree or wild flowers marking my grave, rather than a headstone.  I wanted a biodegradable casket and I absolutely, in no uncertain terms, did not want to be embalmed.

Seriously, if anyone has me embalmed after my death, I will haunt the heck out of them.

A natural burial site.

I'm not going to sit here and say that I have absolutely zero fear of death, now.  I still worry that it will be painful.  I still don't know what - if anything - happens to my soul afterwards.  And I still can't bear the thought of anyone I love passing away.

But those fears are as natural as death itself is.  Grief is a natural thing.  The unknown is something that will always cause a little apprehension.  And nobody wants to think of themselves - or anyone they love - experiencing pain.

But death itself - the inescapable fact of it - is no longer something I am afraid of.  It's just a reminder to get out there and do things whilst I have the opportunity.  

What I want now, is to spread the word.  To encourage others to peek behind the curtain, the same way I did.  To remind people that it's important to know what we want for ourselves in the event of our passing and to make our wishes known to those we'll leave behind.  It might not be something we want to talk about, but it's going to happen and it's best that we have these conversations whilst we can.  To paraphrase Caitlin, only by communicating openly and honestly about what we want at the end of our life, can we try to ensure that we have a good death.  For ourselves and those we care for.

The fear is gone.  I want to live my life to the fullest, embracing my mortality and understanding that there will come a day when I'm not here, anymore.  I want to ensure that those I leave behind know what my wishes are for my final days and afterwards.  I want people who fear death to know that that fear can be overcome.  

I have overcome mine.

Life will one day go on without me.

And that's okay.

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