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Having previously waxed poetic about my love of Caitlin Doughty and her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician and website Order of the Good Death you can imagine my glee upon learning she had written a memoir about her early years as a crematory assistant, mortuary school student and work in the death industry after graduation.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is more than just a memoir of the macabre–it’s a meditation on the way Western culture treats death with Doughty as a stand-in for the average American who wants to see dear ol’ Mother Deadest looking ‘natural’, even though the process to make her appear that way is about as unnatural as possible.
Doughty starts her journey terrified of death, of facing her own mortality, (the current response of most Westerners). She takes a job as a crematory assistant at Westwind Cremation and Burial and, due to her interactions with the decendents that pass through, her entire philosophy on death (and, necessarily, life) changes. It’s a philosophical journey that encompasses history, religion, mythology and biology, is frequently hysterical (I was laughing out loud every other page) but also deeply affecting.
Of particular interest to anthropology-types were the parts about how we’ve come to deal with death the way we do in this part of the world at this point in time, as opposed to the way other people have done. Or do deal with it but simply in different places on earth like the tribe in Brazil that practises cannibalism as part of the death ritual. They’re not having a gourmet, Dr Lecter-style feast whenever someone dies, either. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s what they do. (Next time you have to go to a wake of a family member you hardly knew be grateful you at least don’t have to eat them whether you want to or not because, ‘That’s just what we do. It’s how we say goodbye. Now be polite and finish off Cousin Martha’s foot.’)
Doughty’s writing style is personable, like chatting with an old friend, if that friend is Wednesday Addams. If you’ve watched many of her Ask a Mortician videos you can hear her voice in your head when reading, which makes the funny bits funnier and the moving bits that much more gut-wrenching.
Speaking of guts, this book is most definitely not for the squeamish. Human bodies are organic matter and things happen to organic matter when it begins to break down. Or when it’s embalmed or cremated. Doughty believes in lifting the veil on what death practitioners do and she’s straight-forward about everything that goes on in all its messy, sometimes amusing, human glory.
This book is, however, excellent for fans of Mary Roach, particularly the one about what happens to the body post-mortem, Stiff . I would also recommend the poet and mortician Thomas Lynch’s wonderful Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade .
This one is definitely 5/5.
And because it’s Halloween, here’s Caitlin talking about the relationship between death and Halloween.