Friday, December 12, 2014

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (2014)

Caitlin Doughty was long fascinated by death, so it was no surprise when she took a job at a crematory in her 20s. Armed with a degree in medieval history, she found that the job market wasn't exactly flooded with opportunity. Given her lifelong interest in all aspects of mortality she was soon drawn to the funeral industry. While working for Westwind Cremation and Burial she not only learned a great deal about the industry, but she also further solidified her views on how our society and the funeral industry treat death. Since that time she has founded The Order of the Good Death and hosted a web series called "Ask the Mortician."

Let me just say at the outset that if you feel uncomfortable with frank, graphic descriptions of corpses of all ages and the things we put them through, this book is not for you. Several people in my family work in geriatric care, hospitals, or the funeral industry, so I'm used to hearing about all manner of disgusting things over Thanksgiving dinner. And I've always been a bit morbid, from my early obsessions with Sylvia Plath and Stephen King to my recent and long-awaited visit to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Your mileage may vary.

For those of us who are interested in the macabre, this book is completely fascinating. It's not often you get insight into an industry as tightly-shrouded as this one, and I was very interested in hearing about all the daily aspects of Doughty's job. She doesn't just discuss her crematory work, however, but also delves into all aspects of the death industry and even brings in practices from history and other cultures to lend perspective to our own way of handling the dead and the dying. She raises issues ranging from the spiritual to the environmental, and her consideration of these topics made me think a lot about my own views on death.

Our separation from the harsh realities of death do us few favors when faced with destruction like Hurricane Katrina. The many bodies clearly visible in the aftermath seemed all the more horrific because we have no idea what death actually looks like. A lot goes into making a dead person look presentable, and in making sure we don't see them until they are ready to be viewed. Since most people die in hospitals these days we see few of the gory parts involved in death, as they are left to the responsibility of nurses and other hospital staff. Doughty describes how swiftly bodies are removed from the sight of onlookers after death, a far cry from the days in plague-era Europe when then were just piled everywhere. Not that I'm nostalgic for the smell and decomposition so commonly experienced in our past, but it is pretty strange that we seem to want transparency in every other arena but are happy keeping the details of death behind closed doors.

In fact, Doughty mentions some instances in which grieving families felt better knowing more details about what happened to the remains of their loved ones. In one case, a woman she met outside of work had lost her husband, and when Doughty explains what happens when a person is cremated, the woman said she felt a lot better knowing the details. If people feel better knowing more, then why is the funeral industry all about smoke and mirrors? I'm sure that are people who are happy to have it that way, but clearly that's not everybody.

Not since watching Six Feet Under have I had such an immersive education about death, but of course Smoke Gets In Your Eyes has the advantage of being non-fiction. I found it all completely fascinating and well-written, and further I appreciate that Doughty is unapologetic about her interests, which I'm sure some people find morbid and horrifying. But she embraces death in a way that is really healthy and even admirable. It's a little surprising how much she fit into just 241 pages because I feel like I learned a great deal, and I'm inspired to read more on the subject. Not only does Smoke Gets In Your Eyes feel like a much bigger book, it's also feels like an important book. If you're interested in facing mortality, you can't go wrong by picking up a copy.

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