Quirky kiddie queries about death, dying and other fun stuff

As people grow up, they internalize this idea that wondering about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird.’ They grow scared, and criticize other people’s interest in the topic to keep from having to confront death themselves. … Most people in our culture are death illiterate, which makes them more afraid.”  —  Caitlin Doughty

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Children, meanwhile, fueled by unfettered curiosity and innate innocence, don’t always harbor silly adult fears of death. They’re allowed to, expected to, wonder about death and dying. It’s a learning process;  it’s not “morbid” or “weird.” It’s eye-opening, mind-inflating. Asking questions about it is a step closer to not being “death illiterate.”

The quote topping this post is from Caitlin Doughty’s new book, the funny and informative “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?,” whose subtitle is “Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death.” That means both wiggy and weighty queries from children about death, inquiries she routinely receives as a death-chick rock star: mortician, author, podcaster, “death activist” and “funeral industry rabble-rouser.” In the book Doughty answers 34 kid-friendly (well, kinda) questions about death and dying, and a bit beyond.

A total pro, her attitude is cheeky, frisky and upbeat, often with a wink. It’s hardly just kid’s stuff. She applies sweeping research and her own mortician’s know-how, a braid of science, craft, technology and, unavoidably, morbidity. It gets gleefully icky at times.

Doughty goes into gripping, grisly detail about livor mortis (“bluish color of death”), rigor mortis (“stiffness of death”), putrefaction, embalming, burial, cremation ovens, blood draining, organ donation, and, #1 on the hit parade, postmortem gas. 

And she does it with oozy, crunchy, gelatinous eloquence:

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  • “Welcome to putrefaction,” she writes. “This is when the famous green color of death comes into its own. It’s more of a greenish-brown, actually. With some turquoise. … The green colors appear first in the lower abdomen. That’s the bacteria from the colon breaking free and starting to take over. They are liquefying the cells of the organs, which means fluids are sloshing free. The stomach swells as gas starts to accumulate from the bacteria’s ‘digestive action’ (i.e., bacteria farts).”
  • “In the first ten minutes of cremation, the flames attack the body’s soft tissue — all the squishy parts, if you will. Muscles, skin, organs, and fat sizzle, shrink, and evaporate. The bones of the skull and ribs start to emerge. The top of the skull pops off and the blackened brain gets zapped away by the flames.”
  • “Oh, how to describe the smell of a decomposing human body — what poetry is needed!” Doughty gushes. “I get a sickly-sweet odor mixed with a strong rotting odor. Think: your grandma’s heavy sweet perfume sprayed over a rotting fish. Put them together in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in the blazing sun for a few days. Then open the bag and put your nose in for a big whiff.”

Now, on to questions, a sampling of the kids’ queries, which on average yield two- to three-page responses in Doughty’s book. In brief, inquiries include:

  • The jejune: Will I Poop When I Die? (“You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” Doughty giggles. True: It depends on how “full” you are when you croak. You don’t automatically doo-doo at death.)
  • The sentimental: Can I Keep My Parents’ Skulls After They Die? (No. No. And no. There are such things as “abuse of corpse” laws, our trusty authority tells us.)
  • The ludicrous: What Would Happen If You Swallowed a Bag of Popcorn Before You Died and Were Cremated? (What do you think would happen in 1,700-degree flames?)
  • The freaky: What If They Make a Mistake and Bury Me When I’m Just in a Coma? (Pretty impossible — a battery of medical tests are conducted to confirm brain death.)
  • The ghoulish: We Eat Dead Chickens, Why Not Dead People? (Guess what — some people do. They’re called cannibals. Next!) 
  • The metaphysical: Is It True People See a White Light As They’re Dying? (“Yes, they do. That glowing white light is a tunnel to angels in heaven. Thanks for your question!” the author ribs.)
  • And the vaguely vain: Will My Hair Keep Growing in My Coffin After I’m Buried? (Sorry, Rapunzel. That’s a big fat “death myth.”)

About the book’s titular question, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” — this refers to the dreaded scenario of you dying alone in your home, your corpse left for days and your unfed pet, well, getting hungry. Doughty relishes this one. 

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Caitlin Doughty

“No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs,” she writes. “Not right away, at least.” 

That’s the short answer. 

The longish answer shivers with excitement:

“Cats tend to consume human parts that are soft and exposed, like the face and neck, with special focus on the mouth and nose. Don’t rule out some chomps on the eyeballs,” Doughty says, but more likely your feline friend will dig into the lips, eyelids and tongue.

And what about Pepi the peaceful poodle, human’s best friend, your cuddle buddy? 

“Your dog will totally eat you,” Doughty assures.

Hounding the dogs of Istanbul

She ambled into the cafe smiling, her rump gently shaking this way and that, tail shyly wagging. The cafe owner, a radiant globe-trotter named Nazan who’s lived in Istanbul for years, joyfully greeted the large brown mutt, patting her head and cooing her name. The dog then plopped onto the wood floor and rolled on her back, legs skyward. She remained in this posture for a good half hour. She looked ridiculous. And adorable.

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The pup, whose name is Garip, is one in a gaggle of dogs and cats Nazan feeds and takes care of. Garip is a stray, part of thousands that live in the by turns picturesque and grungy streets of Istanbul, a massive, hilly metropolis bulging with 16 million people — the world’s fourth largest city and the biggest city in Europe. 

That means a lot of stray dogs, whose numbers rival the city’s seething stray cat population (lovingly profiled in the documentary “Kedi,” which I wrote about HERE). It’s a zoo out there, an amicable, well-behaved cosmos of bewhiskered street urchins that are mostly pampered by locals or, at worst, casually ignored. 

Animus towards the animals isn’t evident. I was in Istanbul for nine days this month and kept a close eye on the roving dogs and cats. The critters are almost universally plump and well-fed by caring, compassionate locals attuned to the spiritual sustenance of communing with intelligent four-legged creatures that reciprocate the love. 

There they are, zonked out, on their sides or curled in balls, in the middle of plazas amid the bustle and noise of swarming tour groups that step over them. They loiter outside of restaurants, reliable fonts of food, and snarf up the dog kibble people put out for them on schedule. Nimbly dodging cars, some move in small packs but most ramble their neighborhoods as lone wolves, occasionally pausing to sniff one of their hairy cohorts’ rear-ends before tramping off down cobblestone paths.

The dogs calmly stroll around for snacks and strokes, but are rarely beggy. They don’t cadge, they don’t hector. They scarcely bark. Rather they befriend and endear. If you approach them, they nuzzle up to you, tail fanning, like any dog worth its canine credentials, yet leave you alone when you pull away (unless you call them to follow you, as I often did). Their independence is admirable, even noble.  

As the homeless can attest, street life’s a bitch. Hunger remains an imperative and untended wounds agonizingly fester. I met a dog with a ghastly slash around its throat and another with an oozing cut on its back leg that left a bright streak of blood down its fluffy cream tail, looking like a giant paint brush dipped in red paint. Many stray dogs are registered by the city, signaled by a tag on their ear that means they’ve been fixed and vaccinated. I think that’s swell.

At the cafe, the marvelous Mitara Cafe & Gallery, Nazan visibly adores her furry charges, her courteous quadruped pals. She speaks to them, strokes them, invites them in for a bite and respite from the heat or cold. When I handed her a tip for my lunch, Nazan assured me it would go to food and medical care for the animals. That was all right by me.

A motley gallery of some new Istanbul friends:

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Istanbul’s citywide kitty corner

Goddamm cats. 

All over Istanbul, they ramble and climb, pounce and shinny. These homeless street beasts tackle each other in play; hiss and strike in combat; scrounge and scavenge for the next meal. They barge into shops and curl up in chairs and beg for food at sidewalk cafes with various degrees of rough-hewn etiquette (claws, paws and purrs).

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From the film “Kedi”

Most importantly, they insinuate themselves into the homes and hearts of many of this huge city’s denizens, soft souls who often regard the felines with an almost spiritual gravity, spurring the occasional display of soggy sagacity: 

“Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t,” a cat-lover says in “Kedi,” a documentary about the thousands of stray cats of Istanbul. “Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will.” 

I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means.

“Kedi” (cat in Turkish, though it sounds a lot like kitty) is a well-received film from last year that lavishes the love — there’s not one hater in the whole picture, no one shooing away a cat with a broom — on Istanbul’s famed felines. It feels like a short film stretched taffy-like into a 79-minute feature that’s at once indulgent and superficial, while pleasant and lightly informative in an ingratiating PBS sort of way.   

Someone in the movie declares the homeless kitties are the city’s soul, but on my few visits to Istanbul I saw far more stray dogs than cats. Like this winsome fella, who became my pal for nearly a month:

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Istanbul, 2008

Still, I certainly saw many cats, such as this leery pair of scrappy, well-fed survivors:

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Istanbul, 2008

In “Kedi” cats inhabit rooftops, cardboard boxes, markets, cemeteries, trees and awnings, and the film paints artful visions of the kitty stars, from Bergmanesque close-ups to whisker-level Steadicam action of running, jumping and chasing (mice beware).

The cats comprise a motley array, and I expect to see the kitty cavalcade when I return to Istanbul next month — toms, calicos, tortoiseshells, mamas nursing their babes, cats with patterns like a painter’s palette, or, one of the stars of “Kedi,” a female hellion dubbed “the neighborhood psychopath.”

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From the film “Kedi”

Inevitably, kitty characters and personalities emerge, inescapably anthropomorphized. “It’s so fascinating,” says a simpatico fishmonger of the cats who not so mysteriously follow him around. “They’re just like people.”

We have two cats. They’re just like people: indifferent, solitary, narcissistic, wise, wily, incessantly hungry, jerks.

Yet in “Kedi” the humans are like grandparents who spoil their charges. A shopkeeper compares a kitty comrade to one of his children as he brushes her fur while she looks off into heavenly ecstasy. Another man compares the company of cats to the soul-soothing power of prayer beads.

Our cats provide the soul-soothing power of pooping, crotch-licking gremlins.

Taking care of these furry street urchins is, they say, their duty. They are cat custodians, and for many of them the animals supply a divine connection that is healing, curative and therapeutic.

How is this possible? one may ask. Cats purr and meow, but are otherwise as mute and inscrutable as the Sphinx. They scamper off a lot for no damn reason.

“I imagine having a relationship with cats must be a lot like being friends with aliens,” muses a dreadlocked woman in the film. “You make contact with a very different life form, open a line of communication with one another, and start a dialogue.”

As someone who talks to the animals, from cats to rats, I love that.

(“Kedi” stuff, including trailers, can be seen here.)

Of mouse and man

It’s hot outside, I’m hot, the dog is hot, the backyard plants are hot, and that reminds me, I need to water them. But not until it cools down, around dusk, say. Then that luxuriant jungle of exotic flora will get a soaking and gratitude will beam from the firmament.

A heat wave they’re calling this. It’s only 93 degrees right now but, coupled with sopping humidity, it feels like cruel triple digits. Within a minute of stepping below the blazing skies and into the muggy soup you break a sweat, rivulets down the cheeks, puddles in the small of your back. It’s disgusting. Right, this isn’t New Delhi or Bangkok, but still. Anyone who says they like this weather is either a liar or a twit or both.

Speaking of delightfulness, I recently destroyed a mouse. I did not want to, but my conscience got the better of me. So I held it by its gummy-worm tail and dunked it in the toilet and held it there until it drowned. It took fewer than two minutes, if that. Still, it made me kind of sick.

Why such horror? Thank the accursed cat, the tubby charcoal-gray tom with the white Hitler mustache. There he was, playing with a squirming, grievously wounded mouse, brown with a pink belly, in the dining room. It was the natural world in action, a realm Woody Allen, noting the pitiless animal food chain, dubbed “an enormous restaurant.”

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One might applaud the cat for capturing and maiming a crafty little house mouse, a ravaging rodent. I’m not giving ovations. I’m known for protecting and pampering animals, a latter-day St. Francis sans the amazing tunic, sneaking the dog table scraps and keeping sweet, smart rats as long-term pets. I rescued a baby squirrel from the maw of a snarling cur and a mauled bird from a godless outdoor cat (the bird didn’t make it).

And so I snatched the writhing, oddly bloodless mouse from the cat’s paws, carrying the creature by its silken tail. I wanted to save it, take it outside and let it scamper to freedom.

It scampered, but sideways, in a corkscrewy dance, clearly in pain and despair. It got away, crippled, ruined. I went back inside, crestfallen, wishing I had put it out of its misery. I figured it’d be out there, suffering a slow death for hours, maybe days.

Hours passed before it struck me to go and look for the mouse in the summer blaze. I promptly found it. It was motionless, hopefully dead. But when I touched it, it spun again in corkscrews, its whole body knotting in pain. This would not do. I pinched it by the tail, took it to the bathroom and snuffed what was left of its tiny life.

It was fast, but horrible. I held it moments longer than necessary to make sure the poor animal was out, gone. Then I carried the still, matted body back to the yard and set it behind the shrubs and covered it in mulch. I only wish I had done that five hours earlier.

These things aren’t simple. Even a mercy killing is troubling, against my nature. Pesky vermin — big deal, you say. Big deal, you bet.

Yet there’s no moral here. I don’t like what I did. Not one bit. But I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.

Cats and dog sweetly coexisting. Mostly.

The dog pounces at the cat, stopping short, directly in her expressionless face. He thinks he’s fulfilling his role as a tough-guy mongrel, a canine Cagney, intimidating his housemate, the ice-cool kitty. They lock eyes and stand nose-to-nose. She doesn’t flinch, budge or blink. She has seen him coming, fast, and she holds her ground, not a single whisker aquiver.

The dog, Cubby, is small. The cat, witheringly, seems to be saying to him, “You’re too short for that gesture,” as George Saunders tells Anne Baxter when she swings open the door and tries to eject him from a room in “All About Eve.” In the end, the dog capitulates, and the cat sashays away.

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It’s really not like this, at all.

For the most part, the animals, including another cat, coexist impressively peaceably. They are very mature about their roommate situation. Drama is minimal, and, when it happens, laughable. No one gets hurt.

Poor Cubby. He’s all bark and no bite (except in play, when he nips fiendishly). He loves to hear himself yap, yelp and yowl when the mail carrier mounts the porch, producing a piercing cacophony and, somewhat comically, a rousing display of feckless theater. He growls, spins and crouches, a shrimp-size showman, his nails doing a fine tap dance on the wood floor.

Yet open the door when someone rings and he clams up, giddily sniffing the newcomer, tail wagging, a bundle of excited curiosity. The animal is operating on pure instinct, doggie DNA, so we try not to make fun.

The house cats, Tiger Lily and Spicy, tolerate Cubby, despite their frequent sighs. They mostly ignore him and his occasional manifestations of machismo. They are unflappable, standoffish. Basically, they don’t give a shit. And when they do, they swipe a samurai paw at his face. He recoils.

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Cubby: a badass in his own mind.

Yet sometimes he gets their goat. Periodically, he will chase one of them up the stairs and the cat will bolt, scramble, fly. But not without emitting a long hiss, like a leaky tire or a king cobra. Cubby doesn’t relish that sound, and he stands down and returns to worrying one of his irresistible bully sticks (which are actual 100% bull penises, dried and seasoned).

The whole cats and dogs as mortal foes narrative is a hoary myth. Of course some dogs antagoznie some cats. (As a kid, our otherwise dreamy black Lab tore apart the neighbor’s cat in a scene out of “Cujo.”) It’s nothing personal. It’s biology and psychology: genes and instincts run amok.

There’s a fluffy black cat in the neighborhood that ambles right up to Cubby when he’s on his walks, and the animals casually sniff each other out, the cat practically rubbing against the dog, purring. Cubby is mostly indifferent to this, and promptly moves on.

But he can’t help needle his pet-mates in the house. Close proximity, boredom, jealousy, general annoyance — many reasons spring to mind, all of them conjecture. Sometimes he gets feisty when a cat gets too close to his bully stick, as if they’ll snatch it. Other times he’s just asserting his virility, his wishful doggie dominance.

The cats and the dog are in many ways classic shotgun roommates: imperfect fits, possessive, a little irritable, eating each other’s food, each from different worlds. One roommate likes rap, the other likes Rachmaninoff. The cats want their space, Cubby wants to invade it. He wants to be the pack leader, the alpha male honcho. It’s sad yet funny.

Don’t tell Cubby, but it’s pretty clear: Tiger Lily could lick him.

A blog post that’s purely a pet project

Cubby is the family dog. He is small and Schnauzer-esque. A rescue mutt. His long tail curls into a small O, like a bagel. He barks sparingly, if piercingly. He cuddles greedily. He is overgrown with charcoal-colored fur, like a neglected shrub that needs to be desperately trimmed into a topiary. He smells faintly of turkey bacon. Bath — he could use a bath. Freshly trimmed and clean, he looks like this, a canine Cary Grant:

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Currently, he looks like a graying Ewok:

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How we adore our pets. That’s a cliche, and I’m sorry that occurred. Still, we do. They are little people, extra children, crucial on both sides of the love equation. So human is Cubby that we sometimes believe there is a little man inside him named, mystifyingly, Pasquale, who can unzip an invisible zipper down his neck and chest and pop out ever-so fleetingly, utter his name — Pasquale! — then zip back up and return to being a dog. It’s terrific. We all need medication.

I require animal companionship. When I left home, where we enjoyed a pair of heart-melting black Labs and a bevy of feral yard cats, I went small with pets, namely fish and rats. (Yes. Rats. Deal.) I didn’t want the steep, familial responsibilities of a dog or cat. My independence, especially as a budding world traveler, took primacy.

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Tammy as a tot.

Rats rule. If you know little about them, I repeat the slogan of rattie devotees: “Smarter than dogs, cleaner than cats.” They make magnificent pets — loving, social, funny, trainable. (And then they chew up half the house and all that goodwill curdles. For about a day.)

I have owned six rats, individually. The best were Phoebe, Becky and Tammy, who played and came when called and snuggled and loved to have their tummies rubbed and peed all over the place. And then, exactly at 2.5 years old, each got horribly sick and died. Rat life expectancy is ruthless and cancer or infection generally fells them. Each loss wrecked me completely.

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Cubby, cleaned up.

Dogs, natch, live much longer. Cubby’s about 3 or 4. He looks 65. I’d say he’s got a good 10 to 12 years left in him, wonder dog. I’d include a recent picture of him, but you’d have no idea what you we’re looking at, except maybe a miniature yak.

I didn’t mention the two cats here, Tiger Lily and Spicy. They’re brother and sister and they look about as much alike as Barack Obama and Donald Trump. They wrassle and hiss at each other and Spicy scampishly steals Tiger’s food.

Cats are weird company. Their independence is enviable and noble. They thrive on solitude and hiding places. Pet them at your risk. With an imperious air, they will come to you when they want attention, not the reverse.

Come to think of it, that sounds something like me. I am definitively a dog person over a cat person. I love dogs’ gregariousness, neediness, demonstrativeness — their licks, wags and yelps. But I am not a dog, per se. I’m more Tiger Lily than Cubby. Yet I like Cubby better than Tiger Lily. What that says about me just sent a shiver down my back.

Pets reveal stuff about us. Dog person, cat person, rat person, all of the above. Knowing these creatures, all my life, I’ve been aware how far my fondness can stretch for a non-human being. Blasphemy, you say, but sometimes I think I like the animals better than the people. Just sometimes. Call it a pet peeve. I call it sheer devotion, always returned, unreservedly.