Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
© 2014 Caitlin Doughty
Memento mori — remember your death. Young Caitlin Doughty couldn’t help but remember it; as a child she was traumatized by the memory of another girl her age plummeting to her death inside a shopping mall. The event led to episodes of compulsive behavior as Caitlin did whatever she could to keep the Boatman at bay, whether that be avoiding stepping on newly-fallen leaves or drooling into her shirt. A slightly older Caitlin, one facing adulthood, realized she had to face Death, too: so she started working at a crematory. There, faced on a daily basis with faces of decay, she began to realize that her unhealthy obsession with avoiding Death — avoiding facing the reality of it — was endemic to modern society, and began to chart a new course for herself, as someone who sought to help people deal with death in a more healthy manner.
Corpses aside, this is a funny book — but one with a serious heart. Caitlin uses her experiences at her first funeral home — with a good bit of physical and morbid comedy as she learns the ropes — to review how death and funerary practices have changed in the United States, and to explain what actually goes in during cremation or embalming. For most of history, death was an everyday reality, inescapable. Disease and famine were never far away, and when deaths happened they were handled within the home; family members saw to the final care of their loved ones’ remains. Death is now shoved away into the recesses of our minds, hidden until a serious sickness or a sudden accident forces it into the light. Doughty argues that this is psychologically and socially unhealthy: not only is contemporary society obsessed with youth, but it fights death to the point of making itself miserable. Although we continue to defer death, Our triumphs in modern medicine have produced a bitter victory: as societies become more proportionally populated by aging citizens, we’re left with a question: where are the adults who will be taking care of these rising aged? The numbers of geriatric physicians are falling, even as the need increases. On a more practical level, people’s refusal to consider death means that when it happens, few families are prepared for it, financially or otherwise.. Few can distinguish between what is legally necessary and what the funeral home recommends, and are cajoled into accepting burdensome fiscal obligations.
When Caitlin began working in a crematory, it was a way to make money and face her fears. What it became, however, was a vocation, as she realized she wanted to help people manage death better. Not only did she want to educate people about what happened to their bodies after death, but she wants to open eyes to the possibility of making death a meaningful part of life again. It isn’t necessary to eject people from their loved one’s homes as soon as they perish, or pickle them and entomb them in vaults that seal them off from decay, the author argues. The family can and should be part of the burial process; Caitlin’s own funeral home now offers families the option to wash and dress the deceased themselves, as well as push the button that begins the cremation, which serves as a powerful moment of closure. She also explores the concept of green burials, which return allow human remains to be reclaimed by nature quickly and purposely.
I cannot recall how I stumbled on Doughty’s YouTube channel (“Ask a Mortician“). which made me aware of this book, but I’m glad I did. Although it’s often funny, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is a work of tender reflection on the most haunting aspect of the human experience. It’s definitely one worth reading.
Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, F. Forrester Church
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach