Book Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

I thought of the things that culture teaches us to fear about being in a cemetery at night. A floating specter appearing, its demon red eyes aglow A zombie pushing its bloated, decaying hand out of a nearby grave. Organ music swelling, owls hooting, gates creaking. They seemed like cheap gimmicks; any one of them would have shattered the stillness and perfection of death. Maybe we create the gimmicks precisely for that reason, because the stillness itself is too difficult to contemplate. 

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Death has never been a secret to me – my parents and grandparents and such were all pretty open about it, in their own way. One set of my grandparents told me with great detail everything they had planed re. funerals – including where their plot was, what readings they wanted, etc. My Dad would very nonchalantly say he didn’t care about any of that – just throw him over the wall of the cemetery down the street. I, myself, wasn’t sure what I wanted – I was still very young. I came to the conclusion that “traditional” was not the way for me after reading Stiff by Mary Roach, taking the Death and Dying philosophy course at the U of T in my undergrad and then finding the Ask a Mortician videos on Youtube.

The Mortician of AAM series is Caitlin Doughty – she’s pretty rad (I got to meet her just this week at her book event in Santa Monica) and extremely intelligent, well spoken and empathetic. She has a wicked sense of humour and the way she writes seems conversational and intellectual – peppered with academic insights and quirky facts dredged up from all sorts of interesting places. I got to read her book and absolutely loved it! I am psyched that she is planning on writing another in the Death Acceptance movement.

Review below!

Synopsis:

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

So the book begins in San Francisco as the Caitlin from around 7 years or so ago, begins work at a mortuary in Oakland as a crematory operator. Basically this involves taking dead bodies, putting them into the retort (the big brick-lined crematory machine), waiting until they are nothing but red embers (black embers, I find out, are no good) and then raking them out, whirring them around until they’re dust and then packaging them for the family. It’s heavy stuff – full of observations about the decay of the human body, the way we smell, purge and mold after death, but it’s all detailed in such a way that is light – or at least, if not “light” – quirky and berable. No-nonsense sort of realist approach to death and dying in America.

The basic premise of the book, the Youtube series and her talks is this: We exist, in the North American world, in a death-denial culture. We strive for youth, for life and in all of this, we deny death to the point of sickness. We literally ignore death unless it comes in ways we find alright – fictionalized for example. All those sterile “bodies” on CSI or skeleton costumes on Halloween. We put death out of our minds the rest of the time because it’s scary and we don’t want to think about it. Doughty’s objective is to get us thinking about it – to force us into a place where we confront our own mortality, in order to accept it and get past it.

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She cites all sorts of examples of death rituals from our history and from around the world, including tribes who cannabalize their dead, others who give their dead sky burials and others who dis-entomb their dead, dress them in finery and put a crown on them and force everyone to pledge loyalty to them (Shout out to my own ancestors in Portugal for that story!). All these things are very different from the typical North American funerary practices: here we embalm our dead, for example. Embalming is a practice, I find out, that began with the American Civil War – with people who died on the fields of war, who would pay embalmers to pump them full of chemicals in order to preserve their bodies until they could be reunited with their families once more – just so that their family members could see them one last time. It all sounds so sweet and caring. But what it doesn’t sound is relevant for today – where we have emails and telephones to notify the living, and plane tickets to get them to the dead. To say that Doughty is against embalming is … well, duh.

The funeral industry had its last big shakeup in the 1960s with the book The American Way of Death – a book that Doughty cites in her own work, and acknowledges as an inspiration to young-her. That book put cremations on the map in America – so much so that today, cremations make up a hefty percentage of the corpse-disposal choices. Doughty acknowledges this, but shies away from giving it too much praise – after all, she wants us to confront death, and with that, she reasons, there ought to be some sort of ritual beyond direct cremations (a “direct cremation” is when a corpse is sent to a crematory straight from home/hospital and then the ashes are sent to the family in two weeks; There are other forms of cremation, including a Witness Cremation – a form that Doughty prefers in the book – where the decedent’s family can be present at the crematory and even push the button that begins the process).

But what kind of rituals does she promote? Really, she leaves this open – saying that a ritual ought to bring a family closure (the body and the person that was, of course, don’t care anymore), and so the rituals decided on must be in light of that. So if you feel that pushing the red button at the crematory will brong you closure on your mother’s death, go for it.

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She does mention laws and her wish that the US, both state-wide and federally, would adopt laws that are more in favour of families being able to take part of the process of caring for the dead, including washing and preparing the body, driving it to the cemetery or even digging the grave (in a non-serial killer way that we commonly think of these things). Being a student of history myself with a fascination for the macabre as well as an atheist and a pragmatist, I would tend to agree with her. Her personal preference is a natural or “green” burial (your body is just placed in the ground – no chemicals, no vaults) – which is still uncommon enough these days (weirdly enough) that it is both very expensive and not often found – for example, there are only 3 available cemeteries for this type of burial in SoCal – and one is in Joshua Tree, so not very close … 

The book itself is a delight – it’s light in a way that you have to be when talking about death and it’s funny in a way that isn’t sensationalist or crass, but rather entertaining and informative. The fact that she can get so much information to you in such easy prose says a lot for her approachability. She’s very knowledgeable about her craft and she wants to tell everyone about it – this is a woman who takes her mission seriously. 

I cannot recommend this book enough – it’s meant to be eye-opening about the industry, but also reads like a memoir (which it is). The end of it is a banner – Face death, be happier  – I fully intend to be a carrier of that particular banner, though i may falter once in a while. 

Before you begin with the book, I highly recommend you watch some of her videos here. Particularly, this one, my favourite (I miss my own cat). 

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