Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
by Caitlin Doughty
WW Norton, 2019
Speaking to children about difficult topics is never easy, but the concerns are often comfortingly stereotypical. Perhaps the kids are old enough to discuss the birds and the bees or they’ve joined a sketchy peer group that demands a stern talk about drug or alcohol abuse. But sitting them down to talk about death? A talk centered on the most uncomfortable reality of all might end up being tougher than anything featured on the Dr. Phil show. That’s because, in the Western world, it may be the one concept that’s far more challenging for the adults in the room to face than it will be for the children. But, as demonstrated in Caitlin Doughty’s new nonfiction book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, that doesn’t mean that kids don’t have an interest in the topic. In fact, they have more than a few questions about it!
Caitlin Doughty, a trained mortician and funeral home director, has brought her death-acceptance message to multiple platforms. On her popular YouTube channel, Ask A Mortician, she takes on topics of historical death practices, funeral home insider secrets, and further mayhem within the macabre. She helps to host a podcast called Death in the Afternoon, on which she discusses similar death-centric topics with her co-hosts, two employees of the Order of the Good Death organization Doughty founded to promote healthy conversations about death. She has also written two previous books: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a memoir of the birth of her interest in dark-leaning subjects through her beginning experiences working in the death industry and her most recent, From Here to Eternity, a mixture of travel writing and cultural observation as Doughty ventures internationally to witness and/or participate in various death rituals.
In her previous works, Doughty first aimed to help her readership understand her critical view on the Western attitude toward death and went on to show how her ideas are actually regressive rather than progressive. Death used to be much more of a reality in daily life and therefore much easier to discuss and confront. Though advances in healthcare have extended the human lifespan in incredible ways, our new distance from death has turned it into a cultural taboo. This has allowed the death industry to wrangle a firm chokehold on our wallets as our modern cultural instincts instruct us to take as many steps backward from the idea as possible. Though it may be agonizing to accept, death is indeed the final frontier for any human. Doughty thinks the best way to come to terms with this fact is to regularly discuss and seek understanding about death. In this new book, one can feel Doughy laying the groundwork for achieving her goal of a death-accepting Western culture by using the same guiding principle leaned on by marketing teams for every sugary cereal brand out there: start them young!
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? is structured in a question/answer format. The question are pulled from or inspired by real questions Doughty has been asked while on the road, the majority of which have been posed by the titular tiny mortals. In true kid fashion, they range from the silly (what would happen if you swallowed a bag of popcorn before you died and were cremated?), to the bizarre (can I preserve my dead body in amber like a prehistoric insect?), to the entirely reasonable (what would happen if you died on a plane?). Her answers pull from her own personal experience working with corpses, historical events, and myth-busting science facts. And while she sets out to deliver factual responses to these inquiries, it certainly doesn’t stop her from joining in on the fun. Her tone is surprisingly lighthearted and packed with all the dry wit readers have come to expect from Doughty:
Back in the Middle Ages, people used to be buried right outside (and even inside) churches - lots and lots of people. The human remains were supposed to have been moved away from one particular thirteenth-century English church back in the 1970s. But it turns out they weren’t all moved. We discovered this because badgers invaded and started digging dens and networks of tunnels down through the ancient bones, sending pelvises and femurs flying to the surface. Someone should stop those badgers! Whoops, they can’t. In England it’s illegal to kill those furry creatures, or even move their dens. Thanks to the Protection of Badgers Act (yes, that’s real!), we’re looking at six months in prison and huge fines even for attempted badger assault. Workers at the church have to pick up the bones, say a prayer, and bury them back in the ground. The lesson here is that even if you make it almost a thousand years in the grave, you never know when you’ll be uprooted by a lawless badger.
It’s precisely this willingness to lean into the jovial worldview of a child that makes this book so successful. While some will see her tone as irreverent, perhaps us stuffy adults need to, once again, relish in the ick factor and allow death to become as much as an everyday talking point as it is an everyday occurrence. In this way, children are the ideal ground zero for Doughty to promote her death-positivity agenda. Since the Western cultural thumb hasn’t yet flattened their interest in the topic and rolled it into cold, hard fear, kids are far more likely to ask some of these questions that initially sound kooky, but with further thought, slowly morph into totally rational curiosities. The type of unknowns that will nag at one’s psyche if left unanswered. Do bodies decaying underground affect the taste of the groundwater in the area? Read the question and you’ll be dying to know the answer.
—Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at http://youtube.com/c/abookolive) living in Pittsburgh.