Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory is the memoir and critical analysis of modern death customs by first-time author Caitlin Doughty. After witnessing a tragic accident that involved a young child, Caitlin developed an obsession with the macabre which evolved into a passion for dark history and a little bit of death. Her academic career led her to the mortuary sciences where she became familiar and very comfortable with the taboo subject of death. W. W. Norton & Company | September, 2015 | Paperback | 272 pp
“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As an adult human, your dust is the same as my dust, four to seven pounds of grayish ash and bone.
Fresh out of college, Caitlin picks up her first job at Westwind Cremation & Burial. She has absolutely no experience and on day one, her first task is to shave a corpse. Not every book/author is able to nail that killer first line. Doughty’s personal source material gave her the necessary edge to slay it. Best first line I’ve read in a long time.
“A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.”
Doughty gives us an all-access pass into the restricted zone where the dead bodies we generally hate to see are handled. With fantastic humor and wit, she candidly talks about the lava spills of fat that can happen when a large body enters the furnace, opening up new boxed bodies to discover what strangeness might lie inside, accepting the severed heads from science labs, dealing with the wide-eyed families for at-home pickups, dealing with the bereaved who automatically think she’s swindling them because they saw a Dateline show, and handling a new online website for cremation orders and ash delivery – your one-stop shopping for the dead!
While she discusses the learning curve of dead body shenanigans, the author uses the time to make commentary on the unnatural way we deal with death. By using examples on how other cultures throughout history have taken the time to care for their dead through ritual and hands-on methodology, she illustrates how modern society has become anesthetized to death. We don’t see it, we don’t want to see it, and we don’t deal with it at all – period. Aside from a possible open casket wake, everything else is behind closed doors. Seeing a dead body can seriously upset people even though death is constantly occurring all around us. Bodies are whisked away, covered in sheets, disposed of – all so that we can sleep at night.
“One of the many lessons to emerge from Hurricane Katrina is that Americans are not accustomed to seeing unattended bodies on the streets of a major city.” Understatement of the century, Doctor.
While I agree that the common American is shielded from seeing/witnessing death, I don’t necessarily think this is a terrible thing. The author repeated several times that we don’t die at home anymore, as if it were a negative point. If I were in my last days, I would rather be in hospice where I could receive the round-the-clock care I needed, and to prevent my own family from suffering. There were also a few examples of death and subsequent arrangements made where the author voiced her negative opinions. It felt a bit self-righteous and when we didn’t know the families (how they felt, who they were, the pain they endured), it’s not right to cast judgment.
We all deal with death differently. I’ve held someone in my arms when the nurses turned off the machines and I felt her slip away. I missed another’s hospital death by mere hours when I was stuck in traffic, and the guilt wracks me to this day. I’m one who wants to be there. But others don’t; others don’t want to deal with any part of it and I completely understand that. I don’t fault them for it either. If I lost a child, I don’t think I would handle it very well. I’ve heard of parents who have been asked to identify the body and upon viewing, deny the dead child is theirs even when it most certainly is. For a parent, the need to “shut it away” physically and emotionally might be the only way to save the the self from a total and complete breakdown.
But that’s my opinion, and I’m certainly not the expert.
Putting aside the bias, the rest of the book is a compendium of historical death trivia from a multitude of cultures as well as a concise history lesson on the evolution of burial/cremation and the mortuary business in America. She mixes memoir with snippets of fascinating pieces of information that were impossible to skim over. The details were too deliciously morbid, haunting, and curious.
Have you ever read The Sandman graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman? Remember Death, Dream’s sister? It’s her. I swear to God it’s her. How do I know? I might’ve stalked her website.
Caitlin Doughty has a site where you can Ask the Mortician called The Order of the Good Death. I highly advise checking it out and watching a video or two because not only is she a great writer, she’s also absolutely hilarious on camera, and you get a better feel for her brand of humor. You’ll also learn a lot.
Throughout Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty advises you to do the research when it comes to making those final arrangements, and don’t wait until the last minute. Better yet, check out this book.