I’m a sucker for the morbid. Whilst I like medical and mental health related non-fiction, I have a guilty pleasure for the more macabre books. I find how people have dealt with death throughout history fascinating, particularly the associated rituals and beliefs, but also how the body naturally reacts to death in a physiological sense. See Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found and also Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.
I was blown away by Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – not only is it a much deeper and wider examination of death practices than expected, it’s actually written very, very well.
Summary/synopsis: From her first day at Westwind Cremation & Burial, twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Doughty threw herself into her curious new profession. Coming face-to-face with the very thing we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about she started to wonder about the lives of those she cremated and the mourning families they left behind, and found herself confounded by people’s erratic reactions to death. Exploring our death rituals – and those of other cultures – she pleads the case for healthier attitudes around death and dying. Full of bizarre encounters, gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), this illuminating account makes this otherwise terrifying subject inviting and fascinating.
Caitlin Doughty is apparently relatively famous in the field of, I don’t know, death people? She’s most renowned for her YouTube channel, Ask a Mortician, as well as founding The Order of the Good Death, which promotes a more natural acceptance of death. Before all this, however, she started out at Westwind Cremation and Burial as a crematorium operator, responsible for moving soon-to-be-cremated bodies into the incinerator and all the associated tasks, of which there are a surprising amount. The anecdotes she recounts are somehow both hilarious and mildly disgusting, and at certain points I definitely laughed out loud.
This is not a book for those of a sensitive disposition. We read about decay, leaking and mechanisms for keeping the eyes of the deceased firmly closed (spoiler alert: they use caps with spikes on). I like that about this book though. I like that it goes slightly beyond the realms of propriety to explain the details that I had never considered were an issue. For me, the most interesting chapter dealt with the bodies of babies, both pre- and post-term, and the associated problems. It wasn’t exactly pleasant reading, but it was fascinating and I have respect for the author for discussing what most people would rather brush under the carpet.
Caitlin Doughty speaks with respect and humanity throughout. Although her book made me laugh out loud at points, the book never makes fun of the deceased or their families, and it appears that the corpses were treated with respect at the material time as well. Mishaps happen, of course, but not through any carelessness or lack of compassion.
This humanity underlies the ‘agenda’ of this book and the issues that Caitlin Doughty currently works to highlight. She writes that there is a culture of death denial prevalent in the modern world. Where death was previously accepted as a natural fact of life, attempts are now made to hide ourselves away from the very existence of death, as evidenced by the multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry, the rise of embalming and the ability to cremate your loved ones via the Internet.
She supports family members preparing their own deceased for burial, as decomposition and decay are inherently natural and cannot harm us. By being afraid of the sight of death, we are denying what is an absolute fact of life.
Less than a year after donning my corpse-coloured glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world.
Corpses keep the living thethered to reality. I had lived my entire life up until I began working at Westwind relatively corpse-free. Now I had access to scores of them – stacked in the crematorium freezer. They forced me to face my own death and the deaths of those i loved. No matter how human technology may become our master, it takes only a human corpse to toss the anchor off that boat and pull us back down to the firm knowledge that we are glorified animals that eat and shit and are doomed to die. We are all just future corpses.
Whilst I can’t say that I enjoyed the latter chapters as much as the former sections where the author discussed her day-to-day life as a crematorium operator, this book really made me think and I can’t get these issues out of my head. Whilst I found a few of her ideas a little too out-there for me, like her desire for her corpse to be left in the open to be devoured by nature, I feel that this surely proves her entire point. The concept shouldn’t make me uncomfortable and it’s not ‘out-there’ at all – after all, it’s entirely natural and it’s only very recently that such endeavours stopped being the norm. It’s a lot to think about.
I really, really recommend reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Even the prose is written to a much higher standard than one would usually expect for a memoir-style work of this nature. It doesn’t try too hard to be pithy, nor does the author come across as preachy or naive. I was disappointed when this book ended and I will happily and enthusiastically read anything Caitlin Doughty ever writes.