The corpses that changed my life | Caitlin Doughty | TEDxVienna

The corpses that changed my life | Caitlin Doughty | TEDxVienna

Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Jim Taylor Do you remember meeting your first corpse? I do. I was 23 years old
and had just taken a job at a crematory. My position there was going to be not only cremating the dead
but also preparing the bodies so the grieving families
could see them one last time. I won’t say my first meeting
with a corpse, day one at this new job,
went entirely smoothly. I walked into
the sterile preparation room, and there he was: laying
under a white sheet. I was a little terrified
of him, to be honest, I slowly pulled down the sheets
to reveal his face, and he looked so dead. But in spite of his glazed over eyes, his gaping open mouth, his sunken skin, in spite of him looking deader than I had ever seen
anything look dead, the room still seemed to pulsate
with electric energy. There was something
so visceral, so powerful about being in the same room
as a dead body, something that my society,
your society, as well, has systematically kept away
from us our entire lives. I said this was the first time
I had met a corpse, like formally, but it was not the first time
I had ever seen a corpse. When I was younger,
probably in elementary school, I went to a viewing
for a distant relative. He had been chemically embalmed
by the funeral home meaning his blood was drained out, and a mixture of formaldehyde
and water put in. That procedure had swollen
his skin and dyed it so he looked a bit
more like a wax figure. He was an elderly man,
but was wearing a full face of makeup – including pink lipstick – probably not the shade
he would have chosen. (Laughter) So now, 15 years later, at the crematory, I had finally met a corpse I liked better: no embalming, no makeup,
no casket, just the reality of death. Even better, I didn’t have
to walk up to the casket, peek in, and then scamper away in fear. I was actually going to be able
to spend meaningful time with this dead body. In fact, what my boss wanted me
to do was shave him. Never met a corpse,
certainly never shaved a corpse, but as it turns out, it’s not that hard. Shaving a dead man’s face
is not all that different from shaving my own legs, for example. Use a lot of cream,
short strokes, be careful. This might be the time you start to think how you would feel in this situation, and maybe you’re the type
of person to say, “You know what? This is no big deal. It’s just a dead body,
it’s my job, I can handle it,” or you might be the type of person
to go, “It’s a corpse? is it…? Nope, nope! Bye!” (Laughter) Whichever one you’re at
right now is completely fine. Since that first day at the crematory, I have been lucky enough
to make death my life. I’ve been in the industry for nine years,
and I’ve traveled all around the world, and I can tell you that things
that we may consider transgressive – shaving a corpse, for instance – do not even begin to cover the intimacy other cultures
have with their dead. Last summer, I visited
South Sulawesi in Indonesia. There are remote villages there that keep the dead in the home
for years after death. In fact, my interpreter lived
with his mummified grandfather when he was a child, for seven years. Every morning, they would take him out of bed,
prop him up against the wall, put him in a new outfit, and at night, they would lay him
back down in bed, the same bed
he and his brother also slept in. The week that I was there,
I slept in a home right next door to one of these corpses. She had only been dead
a few weeks at this point, but with the preservation
they had done on her, she looked pretty good, to be honest. I was allowed to bring
her some snacks, which I did. For the people in these villages,
none of this amounts to, “Ugh! You got your Grandpa’s corpse
in your house. Weird!” For them, when you talk
to the dead, they hear you; when you offer them food,
they appreciate it. This is not something out of the ordinary. These are your relatives, these are
members of your community, and they deserve to be treated as such. In the West, we have never had quite this close
a relationship with death, and I’m not suggesting that bringing all the mummies
back into our homes is what we need to do to fix our very broken
relationship with death, but before the professionalization
of death care, before we began to pay people
to take care of our dead, we really were much closer
with them than we are now. In the past 100 years,
we’ve outsourced our death. It’s out of the hands of the families
and into hands of the professionals, and in that transition, there have been some pretty big myths
associated with the dead body – scandalous, scurrilous accusations
if you ask me. The first is the dead body is not safe. It is. Unless your grandmother died of some
wildly infectious disease like Ebola – which if she died
in Kansas City, or Tokyo, or Vienna, I can pretty much
assure you she did not – she is entirely safe to be around. The second is that families
are not allowed to be involved, that a funeral director has to swoop in and take the body
immediately behind the scenes. That’s not true either. Death is not an emergency. You can take the time to sit with the person,
hold their hand, tell stories, and if you’re feeling
comfortable and bold enough, even help to wash and dress
their body for burial or cremation. This kind of empowerment
and closer intimacy with the dead body is why I founded a funeral home in Los Angeles
called “Undertaking LA.” We’re a nonprofit, which means we can help people in LA
and all around the world feel like it’s safe and legal
to do this with their own loved ones. So about a month
before I opened this funeral home, I did a short video
with the website BuzzFeed. In it, I explained pretty much
what I just explained to you now – completely safe, completely legal
to take care of your own dead – I did this in front
of a simple black backdrop with some animations
created by their staff. It was a pretty tame,
uncontroversial video or so I thought. We’ve been doing this, as I said,
in the West for a while. What I was describing was nothing
more than a simple home wake. In fact, what humans
have been doing for thousands of years. In Jewish culture, it’s the ‘shemira’ – respectfully guarding the dead from the time of death
until they’re buried. In countries like Jamaica and Haiti,
wakes are a much livelier affair: all-night vigils to support the family with singing, and dancing,
and drumming, and wailing, and even games like limbo. In the United States, the wake
has a storied history as well, far predating apple pie and baseball. In fact, before the rise
of private funeral homes in the 20th century, all wakes were home wakes, everybody was taken care of
by their own family. And yet, less than a century later,
here is a brief sampling of the top up-voted comments
on this BuzzFeed video. “I’m pretty open-minded,
but this is so weird.” (Laughter) OK, that’s fair. That’s
an opinion, That’s fine. “This girl really creeped me out.” (Laughter) And you know, I should not have worn those snake eye contacts,
and fangs, and cape in the video; that might have been too much. (Laughter) I could see why that would read as creepy. “So you throw a party, and the dead body
is just chilling on the couch? What if everyone thinks
it’s just some guy that passed out, and they start drawing dicks on his face?” (Laughter) (Applause) Oh, excuse me, “LOL.” (Laughter) “You’d be crazy to play
with a dead person like a doll. Seriously, that lady needs
to see a psychiatrist.” The shocking part about these comments is not that people believe these things; we’ve all been around the Internet block enough times to know
people believe far worse. The shocking part to me
is how quickly culture changes, that in less than a century,
our whole system of death can be so thoroughly outsourced,
erased, poof!, gone. The wake, once such a fundamental ritual, is now seen as playing
with a corpse like a doll by someone who needs
to see a psychiatrist – me; that would be me, in this case. (Laughter) Breaking through these myths
is not going to be easy. The death care industry is
a multi-billion dollar industry, and they’re not interested in families regaining
this kind of control over death, but the corpse that I met
on that first day at the crematory, and the thousands of corpses
I’ve met since then have changed my life. They’ve brought me closer
to my own mortality, as well as the mortality
of everyone I love. When I was younger, my mother took care of me
every single day, and when she dies, you had better believe
I’m going to be the one to care for her. Someday you’re going to lose
someone you love whether it’s your own mother,
your partner, or even a child, and the choice you’re going to make
is going to be entirely your own, but I do hope you consider being involved. The people that we’ve been able
to create this situation for feel empowered. Yes, they save a lot of money in a society where funeral costs
are far too high, but more importantly,
it changes the tenor of their grief. There is a gorgeous reality when you allow yourself
to be closer to death. Our ancestors knew that, and it’s time for us to rediscover it. Thank you. (Applause)

100 Replies to “The corpses that changed my life | Caitlin Doughty | TEDxVienna”

  1. Caitlin, been following you for a long time. The last few moments of this shook me, I guess I've never noticed the emotion from you before. Not because it's not there. Just never hit home same way for me. I lost my mum in 2007. I was only 24, I literally never realised myself or my sister were 'allowed' to care for her till well after the event. We were lucky enough to have a relative on my brother in laws side working at a funeral home so it wasn't as impersonal. But still

  2. My in-laws lived in Illinois but grew up in Arkansas. When my MIL died, the funeral home in Arkansas was going to send staff to Illinois to recover her body and transport her to their facility. They wanted to charge $2 per mile, each way. My husband and I are both ER/Trauma/ICU RNs and have no issue with dead bodies. We were not going to allow my FIL to pay a nearly $2,000 "shipping fee." So, we set up a makeshift "bed" in the back of my FILs van, retrieved my now-embalmed MILs body and the legal paperwork from the funeral home in Illinois, covered her with a sheet, and drove her to the funeral home in Arkansas. Our 2-year-old son sat next to her in his car seat and never had any idea she was there. It was the best 8 hours I ever spent with my MIL. We didn't have one single disagreement.

  3. Myself, sister and Mom nursed my Dad for 3 weeks in the home to his death. When he died my aunt cleaned his body. Out of all of this experience the worst was when the funeral home removed him from the home. My dad saw me draw my first breath and I saw him draw his last. It was an honor to be there with him.

  4. Not everyone in the US outsources it. When y dad passed I built our own family cemetery and buried him myself, well me and the rest of our family. It was free, and far more personal, very proud to have been able to do it, and I know it is what he would have wanted. The other thing is, now my own place is set and ready when its my time.

  5. Do you know why theres a fence around the cemetary…?

    Because theres so many people just dying to get in there…😨

  6. Everything she says is so true. The West has managed to turn the most personal thing into a money grabbing industry in such a short time. I really like her.

  7. My mom wants to be cremated. She told me to get a gallon of gas and a match. Don't worry I'll take her out of the house first.

  8. My grandfather died very close to my fifth birthday and while i don't have many memories of him, I remember his funeral. Where I live, funerals are done in ones home. The coffin is placed in the biggest room of the house and friends and family sit there with the dead until the priest arrives. After the prayer is done and the coffin is about to be carried away and buried, people will hold the dead person hand or kiss their forehead as a last goodbye. I, according to my grandmother and my somewhat fuzzy memories, didn't do that at his funeral, in fact, I didn't want to get near the coffin. To this day I don't know why – maybe I was scared or just couldn't understand the situation. I only wish that I had more time with him to get to know him better and to hear about his life and travels from his point of view not only from my grandmother

  9. 10:40 and now im sobbing; i don't think i've ever seen caitlin get near emotional over speaking about death. i fully agree with her.

  10. After watching this video I got to talking with my husband about how we want to be interred, and our options. Thank you Caitlin for turning me into a deathling!

  11. i have an intense fear of death but i’ve always wanted my funeral to be a party. i remember people used to look at me like i was crazy when i said i wanted pyrotechnics and a sushi bar at my funeral but wouldn’t you want to celebrate the joy of life rather than the sadness of someone passing? i wouldn’t want the mood to be just somber.

  12. I'm 38, I've lost both my mom and dad, they were older parents and I was an only child. I couldn't deal with their deaths, I wish I had been stronger. I'm sorry

  13. When I got my dog put down I felt as if I left my best friend to be taken care of by people who would just hurt him even tho he was dead my dog was like a trial and air for my and showed me so much WRONG that now I see things so much different

  14. I don’t know if I could be involved…I just don’t know if I could mentally be capable of that. I feel I would shut down if it was my wife, kids, etc. I have no clue how someone could keep it together enough to do it.

  15. We held a home wake moments following my Mom's death. We called her 9 other brothers and sisters and her Mother to come and say their good byes before the funeral home came to get her body for cremation. It was healing for us as we all sat around her hospice bed, sharing stories about her wit and humor…and our sorrow and pain at losing her so young. My Dad and I dressed mom for the wake and we didn't feel wrong or creepy. We wanted her to be dignified and beautiful for her family, even in death.

  16. Some of things she talked about , also made me think about sent goose bumps. But she had also opened my mind ,and did it a good and honest way 💕

  17. Where are my deathlings?! Such a wonderful talk. I def am thinking of doing a more traditional wake at home ❤ almost like an open house people can come and view my body still trying to figure out what I want. The options are endless 1. Natural death 2. Cremation 3. Aqua Cremation or being turned into a tree to live on! Its interesting how the ancient civilization planned there who life on moving on no matter what believe you have the spirit moves on! This is our termpory home!

  18. 4 days ago my niece passed away, she was almost 8 months pregnant. They delivered her baby boy trying to save him. He lived about and four and half almost five hours. I was very close to my niece, my sister her mother passed away a year and a half ago. The babys father was there and very involved. He did allow only me to hold the baby when he was still alive. After he passed he allowed me to hold him as well. This of course was a shock to our family. a very very large family. I do not find anything wrong with spending time with my loved ones who have passed as I know There is a short window of being with them before they are buried or cremated. I know when my loved ones are saved they will be in heaven and I will see them again. I find nothing wrong with spending time with and loving them in death as in life.

  19. The Lord Jesus said let the Dead Bury their Dead, l am, Come to Save the Living,!!!*****,from Eternal suffering after death!!!*****,

  20. "preparing the corpse"
    I gave a woman similar to this one my mother's body, makeup, dress, and items she and we wanted to bury her with. She did the makeup so well, had a wig on that looked similar to the red hair we shared, and constantly contacted me about the process. It helped me process her death and even see her better than she looked towards the end of her cancer-ridden life. It really helped my grief process.

  21. I worked hospital security, it was a major hospital but for some reason did not have mortuary techs so security was in charge of signing them in and out. My first visit was not pleasant, the body was coming from outside the hospital and had been involved in a head on collision with a truck. Lets just say he was a mess and I felt myself start to panic, having a job to do helped and i got through it, I never enjoyed that part of the job, being surrounded by 30 corpses was never easy for me but i learned to cope.

  22. Well…from my experience there can be, what shall we call it, a certain o d o r …Not exactly how I'd want to remember my dearly departed.

  23. the African country am from we traditionally hold wakes for all the deceased…a chosen few from the deceased families will go to the morgue at the hospital and wash and dress the body in a shroud. this was done for my mother who passed in 1999. i remember seeing her in her coffin. not a pretty sight, as decomposition had set in, but still recognisable. when i touched her cheek she was cold and it felt weird, but it was still my mum, the woman who gave me life and my first love. i was 16. i miss her till this day. i have both a fascination, fear and respect for death…its one inevitable constant we have, which is one day we will die and be nothing but a memory. dying has become so expensive that its become impersonal….the amount you have to pay funeral home, and a grave site is ridiculous…add the cost of a coffin as well and you're looking at a hefty fee….you'd think that when you are no longer part of the living it would cost next to nothing….nope!i hope that people take a more personal approach towards death, and see that it can be just as special as birth.

  24. "There is a gorgeous reality when you allow yourself to be closer to death" — how beautifully said and so true. Thank you for an excellent talk!

  25. Absolutely valid. When my dad died, I flew back from Los Angeles to Minneapolis (where he had died) and was notified on the telephone when the plane landed that he had died. The person just flat out told me this without any questions asked – just plain matter of fact ("he's dead). I had to pause to tell her that I was his son and this was the first I had heard of his death. Little or no reaction on the other end of the line. Unbelievable.

    Then the next day, I am sitting in a funeral home with my mom and brother and listening to a SALESMAN trying to sell us everything he could for my dad's funeral. It was as if he were a bloodsucker getting all he could out of us. We did not know him and I later find out from my mom that there was an old neighbor that also worked there – no thought from anyone that that person would have been able to work with us more sensitively. I must say that I don't understand my mom's thinking here. Anyway – one of the worst experiences of my life when it should have been respectful and caring. Nope – just good old American salesmanship at work to the max. Funerals are so costly – it is a problem for us all. The only good thing was the visiting time to meet so many people from his life which was a wonderful experience hearing so many good things about him. That's the only part of funerals that we've kept.

  26. I’m a geriatric social worker – when a resident passes away where I work – which is more independent setting than a nursing home there are mixed feelings – on one hand it is sad to lose someone we cared for on the other hand – knowing they passed in their home after a life in a more independent than institutionalized setting and probably were going about their everyday business up until the end brings some peace
    I’ve had to sit in apartments a few times over the years when the coroner is called and /or funeral director and I always feel at peace in these moments … I take stock of the little things in their home – a turned down bed sheet – an unfinished cup of coffee – a crumpled note they may have scribbled on – all marks of their last hours – it has a feeling of time being frozen -I have also marveled about how they are there in flesh but no longer here – most of all I feel honored in the presence of these people – to be trusted with assuring they are kept safe until they are collected and when they are taken away somewhat relieved to know it’s OK that we are finite – is OK not to know what is next and that whatever has happened to them – wherever their energy has gone – if anywhere is a mystery that will be solved to all of us in time

  27. I love this! I’ve worked healthcare for 20 years. I didn’t stop to think this was an option but I will absolutely care for my own loved ones body’s just as I have washed and cared for strangers loved ones for so many years.

  28. I am half Native American and our traditions still allow us to handle our dead and we have a very lengthy feast and care for the dead. Wrapping and dressing the body ourselves with respect and love. It defiantly has a different feeling of closure than when I have had a very sharp cut off death separation from a friend’s or someone else with a modern day way of handling the dead. Those, to me, the quick they’re here then gone until the open casket, have been more emotionally traumatizing to me than the native tradition of saying goodbye to our dead. But that’s just how I grew up on my moms side. That was the normal. She included me in traditions they still carry on with today.

  29. Alot of houses in the 18th 19th centuries used to have a parlour room. The fanciest room of the house. Often used only for wakes or other important gatherings. This is the reason why funeral homes are still refered to as funeral parlours.

  30. It truly is strange for people to not realize the comfort and support of interacting with their dead. In my experience as a mother who lost her daughter in the second trimester, that was the most healing thing my husband and I could have done– and it is not at all unexpected. The hospitals ask you if you would like to spend time with your baby, and they give you all the time you need. If you want them to bring your child back, they will do so willingly.

    In the PAIL community, this is not frowned upon or strange– it's expected and welcomed, as are taking images of your departed child. Nurses encourage you to spend quality time with your deceased child– bathe them, dress them, etc. It is a part of the mourning process, and can be so entirely healing.

    My husband and I passed our daughter back and forth, looked her over, touched her skin and talked to her, and rocked her. I am so grateful for that time, because it was intimate and loving.

  31. As a child, I was in attendance at a family member's wake in the Southern US, circa 1970s. This was not weird, or morbid. It was tradition. I treasure having had the experience.

  32. I was 5 years old when I saw and kissed the corpse of my 4 months old sister. She was freezing cold, bluey grey and her head had expanded to a huge size. I was 18 years old when I saw my 2nd corpse, grandad.

  33. wish I knew all of this when my mom passed. she died, she was removed from the house and poof she was gone forever.

  34. The other day my grandpa passed away. My younger cousin who is 11 found grandpa, dead in his bed. It’s a very upsetting thing to think of. Death scares me. I’m not scared of dying but to know my older family members will pass before me, scares me.

  35. Thanks, you made me cry! Soooooo true! Our western death is so disconnected from reality! I was there when my grandfather passed, on my in laws side. In the living room on his hospice bed. We hung out with him for a couple hours, had a drink, or 10, joked around, told stories, etc…. this was my first experience with a loved one, by their side when they died. It was, ,well,I can't explain it. But the truth is, it was amazing, heartbreaking, gut wrenching. But there was that electric feeling you spoke of. Something he also believed in. We need to find the guts to regain control of our dead. You can take the credit. I'm 37 and I'm in touch with my own mortality more than ever. I've told my husband what I want, how I want! No tears, no fancy clothes and one big party! Oh yeah, I doubt they would do it, but I've thrown out the idea of the wake being a "death roast" cause all my friends and family have so much ammo!

  36. I hate how rushed everything is with death. We just lost our 4 yr old son Mikey in June 2019. After his heart surgery went horribly wrong, he was left brain death. My husband and I took him off life support. We stayed with the ICU nurse and washed him, dressed him and took out his IVs, etc. At the funeral home, we saw him. We had to sign a waiver since he had an autopsy. I couldn't NOT see and kiss my son. That's my baby. We got him dressed and did his hair as well. We did everything we were legally allowed to do. Don't let other people tell you what you can and can't handle. You never get those moments back. Had my son been more physically stable, (he had a ton of bleeding) I would have brought him home on Hospice so more friends and family could say goodbye.

    I love you Mikey. I miss you so much. 💙❤

  37. I truly enjoy your site. I'm a nurse and have really cried when a patient died. It never mattered how the patient died…i always cried.

  38. So the people who sent her the negative comments she mentioned here are probably also people who thought Weekend At Bernie’s was hysterical 😐

  39. I would be very interested to know how to deal with taking care of it all without any help commercially. I think it is called natural burials. The lady I saw on UTub said they wrapped her husband in a shroud lowered him into a hole in the ground in the woods, covered him up and that was it. I suppose laws differ by state, this lady was in the south. I've never heard of anything like that before. So, what say you?

  40. There is a Japanese movie with English subtitles, called:' DEPARTURES',It is fabulous . you will laugh,cry and maybe wish to 've taken care of at death in a similar manner.

  41. On the day that my mom died, I saw a misty spirit beside her bed. It freaked me out ! I knew that something big was going to happen. I figured that someone was coming to get her. She died about 6 hours later. I felt at peace knowing that she wasn't alone when it happened, and that someone had come for her (I think that it was my grandpa, I'd had a dream of him coming). She'd been so scared of dying, not knowing what would happen next. I'm glad that my grandpa came so that she didn't have to be scared.

  42. I so appreciate these videos, I have always been sincerely interested in the process of death and the death industry. Several years ago my own mother was diagnosed with sage 4 lung cancer, she was so week at the time of the diagnosis that the doctors sent her home to die. I moved in with mom and stayed with her for the last month of her life. It was the most profound experience to take care of my mother as she had lovingly taken care of me, so many years before. A day does not pass that I do not think of her and thank God for the time I had with her. My mother was a beautiful woman and was always well dresses and particular about how she looked. it felt natural and nurturing to be able to clean her, comb out her long hair and change her pajamas, before the funeral home took her away. I only wish I would have been given the opportunity to fix her hair the way she liked and paint her nails at the funeral home, I did not even know that was an option. Thank you for lifting the vail over the death industry, so to speak…it allows those of us who are still grieving to understand the process.


  44. I prefer to use the word, remains. It just sounds more respectful. I remember the first funeral that I went to. I was five and it was a military funeral. I was fascinated with the sound of Taps. I still enjoy hearing that melancholy tune. I didn't finish listening to this woman because she isn't funny. She is insensitive.

  45. I worked at a burrial vault company one of my first real jobs. We would set up and service the funeral. Then help the grave diggers fill the hole or grave. I did this a long time and learned that even at the very end if someone needed more time we would stop everything we were doing and walk away until they were okay for us to continue. It taught me a lot about people and to respect thier feelings. It's like I was at work but these folks were at a funeral.Some guys would make fun of me and say I was the last guy to let you down. And yes I have many stories about graves, cemeteries, funerals and people. Some I thought were funny some that would break your heart. We also would exume or have to dig up and move some folks for what ever reason. Which was no fun at all. And if they needed to be moved to another cemetery in a different state we would dig them up open the vault. Place them in a new vault and take them to thier new resting place no matter where it was. It was an interesting job.

  46. I’m Hindu. Within 24 hrs of a loved one dying, we cremate the body. Some rituals are performed and it’s over quickly. No embalming, no preservation, no attachment to the dead, empty shell. The body is bathed and dressed and their soul is worshiped and encouraged to move on immediately.
    The entire process costs very little money, which is why the funeral industry discourages these practices.

  47. Wow wish I had seen this sooner. My mom passed away May 1st and while we were given some time to spend with her in the hospital. I wish I had known I could go with her to the funeral home and not just for the service.

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