Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
Caitlin Doughty
September 15, 2014
272 pages (hardcover)

Caitlin Doughty is on a mission. She wants to change how we, as a society, view death (“A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death.”). She seeks to rid the world of the dirty, dark “death stigma” and the fear-mongering, up-charging funeral industry as it now exists. She wants death to have “its own moment of truth”:

We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi, for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes.

Death is not something that most would consider a normal passion, but Doughty embraces that. She refers to herself as “functionally morbid.” She is a licensed mortician, founded the “death acceptance collective” The Order of the Good Death, and is the host of the YouTube series “Ask a Mortician.” Here she is in Episode One, answering questions about “death, dying, decomposition, mourning, funeral customs, etc.”:

Doughty’s fascination with death stems from an incident at a shopping mall when she was only eight years old. It was Halloween, and she had just won a costume contest. She was trying to track down her father, whom she saw from afar, sleeping on a bench in the food court:

As I shouted and waved my arms, I saw out of the corner of my eye a little girl climb up to where the escalator met the second-story railing. As I watched, she tipped over the edge and fell thirty feet, landing face-first on a laminate counter with a sickening thud.

This is the incident that Doughty describes as the impetus for her wanting to work at a crematory: “The truth was, I saw the job as a way to fix what had happened to the eight-year-old me. The girl kept up at night by fear, crouched under the covers, believing if death couldn’t see her, then he couldn’t take her.”

This story (described in a chapter entitled “The Thud”) is, surprisingly, one of the less graphic chapters in Doughty’s new non-fiction work Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. It is a book about her work in a crematory, her time in mortuary school, her fascination with death, and her goal to change America’s death practices.

Rating: 3.5/5

Remember: Doughty wants us all to get over our squeamishness about death, so she faces it head-on. This book is not for the faint of heart, those who are creeped out by death and dying, or those who get nightmares thinking about dead bodies. Doughty does not shy away from anything. She tells things as they are, in graphic detail. Often, it is interesting. Sometimes, it is downright gross.

There are chapters about the cremation process, dead babies, what happens to donated-to-science bodies (that turn into separated body parts) after they’ve been used for science, and decomposition. There are graphic details about “skin slip,” gobs of fat spewing from a crematory when a particularly large man was cremated, and the incredibly unnatural process of making a dead person look “natural” for his or her final viewing–a process that involves, among other things: eye caps (rounded, flesh-colored plastic cups with spikes on them to keep the eyelids closed and in place), superglue, mouth formers, needle injectors (“a metal device used to shoot wires into the decedent’s gums so they could be tied together to hold the mouth shut”), and saran wrap. There are stories about picking up frozen fetuses from hospitals (and how much more quickly they burn than adult dead bodies), “floaters” (people who die in water), embalming procedures, and the Wari’ tribe of Brazil, who cannibalize their dead.

If you watched the “Ask a Mortician” clip above, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of Doughty’s voice. Her writing isn’t quite so annoying, but it is conversational and straight-forward. The book is mostly comprised of personal stories about her work at the crematory and some of the crazy experiences she had there, but it is peppered with a lot of fascinating history about death practices in other cultures and times. Her tone is a little preachy (she does, after all, want to completely revamp America’s views on death), but all in all, this is a surprisingly interesting book about a pretty weird topic.

The hype:

  • the #1 LibraryReads List selection for September 2014
  • an Indie Next List pick for September 2014

Who should read it: People who want to learn more about the death industry . . . and aren’t horribly creeped out by the thought of reading true, detailed stories about baby cremations and decomposing bodies.

Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:

  • The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (a short, illustrated novel translated from the original Japanese)
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