Review: Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death 1st Edition By Caitlin Doughty
When faced with the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, very few kids would answer “undertaker”. Caitlin Doughty, perhaps most famous for her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician, certainly wouldn’t have. “I never had any sense of the funeral industry as anything other than this dark, archaic hole with a man in a suit putting electric green fluid through a tube into a corpse. It never even occurred to me that I could be a part of it,” she says.
But maybe that is about to change. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? answers 35 questions about death, sourced from curious children. From “Will I poop when I die?” to “Can I use bones from a human cremation as jewellery?”, it gets down to the morbid questions we all have – asked by children unburdened by shame. “The kids make it clear that we’re not being direct enough in how we talk about death,” Doughty says. “I think that a lot of adults never really got the kind of death education that they need.” She compares the silence about death to the reticence around sex: “My parents weren’t necessarily talking about it, but I was watching porn at my friend’s house when I was nine because her older brother had it. There’s always going to be these things slipping in somehow.”
To the uninitiated, Doughty’s work, unsurprisingly, sounds a little morbid. She has written two other books about death: her 2014 memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and 2018’s From Here to Eternity, about death rituals around the world. On her YouTube channel, where you’ll find videos including “Can I become mummified?” and “Corpse phallus capers of Rasputin and Napoleon”, she’s been answering questions from curious adults for seven years. But lifting the lid on that antic Pandora’s box, reveals a very admirable personal aim; to dispel the west’s fear of death.
After attending mortuary school in San Francisco, Doughty, then 22, started working in a crematorium. It was not something she expected to become her life’s work. “I kind of thought it would be a cool story to tell at a dinner party when I’m 45,” she laughs. But she took to it quickly, and found her mission on the way.
“When I started to learn about the commodification of death and the death industry in the western world, I realised we had something taken from us as a culture,” she says. For From Here to Eternity, she travelled the world to observe different cultures’ death rituals; the book is both sensitive and light, and thoroughly researched, written by an author who genuinely wanted to learn from, not fetishise, other customs. “It’s a problem in the US and the UK that we just suck our immigrant cultures up into our cookie-cutter, bland death rituals. Forcing them to leave behind rituals and ways of doing things that are really important to them,” she says.
In 2011, Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, a “death acceptance” collective that aims to educate people on better ways to handle dying. From there, she started Ask a Mortician to answer people’s questions about death. As well as the kookier queries, her videos also include “Helping a Friend Through Grief” and “Overcoming Death Denial in Your Family”. She advocates for the family caring for the bodies of loved ones, and has found that “people instinctively want to be more involved, they just need an expert to say go for it.” In 2015 she opened Undertaking LA, an “alternative” funeral home in Los Angeles that focused on being more affordable and getting the family involved (a new branch is about to open).
She has been building up to Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? for years, with videos such as “It Gets Better, Morbid Kids!” While the idea might send shivers up some parents’ spines, she says adults shouldn’t shut down children’s questions. “Maybe you’re terrified that something you say is going to set off some deep death fear in them. Say it honestly, tell them ‘If something is bugging you, or you want to keep talking, I’m always happy to talk to you about this’,” she says. She wishes more adults would give children information early on, so that when they inevitably encounter death, “they’re already used to talking about it, used to the more fun, interesting, curious parts.” She believes it’s possible, through science and humour, to train the brain “to see death as simultaneously very heavy and a source of great curiosity”.
As a child, Doughty learned about death violently when she saw another child fall in a shopping mall (“a complete aberration”). Afterwards, she developed OCD symptoms including tapping and compulsive spitting. “My brain was being invaded with the knowledge of death and the fact that people could be taken away from me at any moment and I couldn’t control it. All I could control were these little rituals.”
Like Doughty, my early relationship with death also manifested through OCD. Once I learned that people could be taken away, I started trying to regain control through repetitive actions. That obsession has only intensified as I’ve got older, but the work of Doughty and other death-acceptance advocates has helped quell my fears. “I have never gotten a message that said ‘I watched your videos and it made it worse for me. I’m more anxious now, I’m more obsessive compulsive,’” she says. “People don’t necessarily like it when I use the word ‘control’, but I personally like it because I think that’s what happened to me. The feeling of empowering myself to know the reality. That truth did set me free, in a way, and made me feel better. It still makes me feel better about the fact that we will all die.”
Not everyone feels the same. Some people find comfort in denial. Doughty’s humorous and transparent approach can be controversial, with some of her viewers and readers criticising her for not discussing grief enough. But she’s anything but insensitive, and knows better than anyone about the impact of losing someone: “You’re never going to be the same again. But how can we turn this into something healthy as opposed to something else? Turning grief into healthy grief is not a disservice to the person who died, even if it was someone incredibly close to you. It’s not a disservice to mourn them in a healthy, open way. You’re never going to get over it, no matter what, but you remember the experience with a sort of melancholic, whimsical engagement. You can really do the work, or you can just remember it as a source of deep trauma. You’re going to remember it one way or the other – so what is that going to look like?”
Nobody likes to think about mortality, but if you’re going to, there are far worse places to start than Doughty. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? is funny, dark, and at times stunningly existential, revealing not only how little we understand about death, but also how much kids can handle. As to whether or not your cat will eat your eyeballs? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.
• Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99) on 19 September.
About the Author
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and the author of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? as well as the New York Times best-selling books Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity. She is the creator of the “Ask a Mortician” web series and founder of The Order of the Good Death. She lives in Los Angeles, where she owns and runs a funeral home, Undertaking LA.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs, Caitlin Doughty