When you're chatting and cackling in a quiet half empty bar in with a mortician about ghosts, real-life zombies, death, and of course corpses, your bartender tends to take notice.
"I couldn't help but overhear your conversation…did I hear that you're a mortician?"
Looking up from her Irish Dip (some beer drenched version of a French Dip) Caitlin Doughty of "Ask a Mortician" and the upcoming book "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory," brightly responded "Yes," and before I know it he was telling us about the day he spent in the local morgue (for an article, turns out he was a writer) and the relationship between dead human bodies and one's hunger for meat.
The three of us chatted about the weird hunger for a rare burger or steak after first encountering corpses, how we've all heard human tastes like pork, and after Caitlin graciously fielded a few more questions about her profession, we were left to our drinks again.
It was no big thing.
And such is Caitlin's life. People ask her their burning questions about cremation (see what I did there?), the handling of corpses, and various death practices, and she answers in a smart, witty, and totally accessible way. Looking more "Disney princess than the new face of death" according to LA Weekly, Caitlin takes death out of the "Creepy Corner" and puts it in your living room. Where, she believes, it belongs.
Obviously with a life, uh, DEATH view like this, I couldn't stay away from this woman for long.
I got in touch with Caitlin a few years go when her first "Ask a Mortician" videos hit YouTube. And finding that we had in common not only the desire to bring what previously lurked in the dark into the light, as well as the island of O'ahu (Caitlin is originally from the town of Kaneohe just outside Honolulu), our creepy, macabre friendship was born.
That is, if you consider jammin' out to Honolulu radio's 100th playing of Heavy D's "Now That We Found Love" in her mom's Nissan creepy and macabre. This one's for you Caitlin.
So on a dark and dreary (clear and humid) night, Caitlin and I made our way to Honolulu's Chinatown to grab a drink while she was visiting from L.A., and talk about among other things, what she finds "creepy." Turns out very little.
Caitlin doesn't believe in ghosts, she doesn't really have any spooky stories from the morgue to share with us ("empty vessels" she calls them, "that occasionally release gas," but rarely anything more frightening), but the thought of happening upon a submerged, water-logged corpse chills her.
"The idea that I'll be swimming along and peek through some weeds or something and come upon a FACE, just there, STARING at me," she demonstrates, eyes agog, hands held up as if peering through seaweed, "terrifies me."
Huh. The mortician is afraid of water bodies. This thrills me as I have spent hours upon wasted hours researching every cave diving accident ever recorded.
At "CAVE DIVING," her eyes get even wider. We realize we have a shared morbid obsession with cave diving. Yes, cave diving. I'm afraid of home invasion, cockroaches, my bathroom mirror, and cave diving. Think SCUBA diving in pitch black, completely still, underwater caves, entirely cut-off from direct access to the surface SHOULD SOMETHING GO WRONG.
No, no, neither of us ever WANT to go cave diving -- called one of the most dangerous sports a human can embark upon -- but for some of us, like watching "The Conjuring" or for me, "The Strangers," it is a stomach-churning fascination that we can't look away from.
An especially horrifying accident happened in South Africa when a very experienced dive master, David Shaw, with hundreds of hours behind him, dove down into a cave to retrieve a body. Something went wrong, and in the process of retrieving the body, he ran out of air and died. The worst part is that his death was captured on his very own video camera.
Caitlin shakes her head, "Nope. Can't."
You can find it on YouTube, but there is no way in hell I'm posting it here. Carl Tanzler's corpse bride -- sure! Cave diving body retrieval gone wrong? Nope. Can't.
"Ugh, and the bodies down there are perfectly preserved. They could be there for decades, and look THE SAME as when they died." She shivers.
"You can be swimming around, and you turn down a tunnel or something and THERE IT IS -"
"- JUST WAITING FOR YOU," I blurt out.
I don't know why it was surprising, but we shared that stony moment where you look at another and think, "Oh...you're like this, too."
Of course there's more to Caitlin than cave diving accidents and Heavy D.
Her mission as the poster child for the death acceptance movement involves opening her own mortuary and educating the masses on how to prepare a dead body in one's own home should the occasion arise. Essentially Caitlin wants to remove fear from the death equation.
"People are taught to think corpses are dangerous, or scary", she explains. "It's living people that can be dangerous and scary, corpses are benign and beautiful. And taking care of them yourself is an incredible experience we just don't have anymore."
As easily spooked as I am, talking with Caitlin in her funny, upbeat, no-nonsense manner, she has a way of making corpses, decomposition, burial, or lack thereof (both of us have a desire to be left to nature, preferably eaten by animals, after death), sound rather appealing.
"Louise, Louise...you just have to keep telling your husband every day that you want your body to be eaten by animals. Be calm about it or whatever, but don't stop until he agrees to do it!" And like a Fairy Death Mother, she strengthens my resolve.
In Caitlin's world there are no apparitions, or walking dead, or EVPs. She doesn't deal in scary stories or Creepy Corners. Contacting the dead means something very different. To her there is only the acceptance, even the comfort, that we are all going to die, and you can either deny it or embrace, accept, and understand what happens to the body post-mortem -- it doesn't have to be scary, it can even be lovely.
Caitlin and her forum, Order of the Good Death are working very hard to bring you to the latter.
As our evening came to a close and we bid farewell to our "morgue reporter" bartender, we started making our way through the "rough part" of Chinatown, as her dad put it, back to Caitlin's car. Giggling about how exactly "not rough" Chinatown was, we joked how it would be delicious clickbait if the Creepy Corner lady was found dead in the company of The Mortician.
Laughing her big, clear laugh, she walked steadily onward saying, "Wouldn't that be perfect?"