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

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“This woman had decided that I was dirty and deviant. Handmaiden to the underworld.”

Why is it so shocking to read books about such subjects as death or work in a crematorium? In all our ‘modernness’ we have built sky high walls to keep out suffering, death, decay, and illness. People used to die at home, surrounded by family, now they can do it in clinical settings- which seems terrible to me. I can take it further, we don’t want to see homeless people, or get involved in trouble our neighbors have so many turn a blind eye to abuses, crimes…because we’ll go blind if we see the underbelly of things, most especially our own fragile, mortal bodies.  So we chose blindness in the present anyway. Tuck it away nicely, sweep our ashes under a rug, toss the body somewhere sterile, and magically it will come out nice and packaged, the way we like things. We can’t even really handle decay while alive. We have creams for our wrinkles, surgery for our deformities and unflattering cellulite, we can’t handle anything that reminds us that we are aging.

There is always something ghoulish about death for most people and Cailtin Doughty may seem to some a deviant, a handmaiden to the underworld but she isn’t. She is curious and if you too enjoy or suffer (as you will) from epistemophilia then why not learn about the strangely fascinating world of the crematorium? Much like people who wonder how surgeon’s can open us up and dig around, many wonder how anyone can bear witness to death and worse, the disposal of corpses. Corpses are just people, my friends, which you too will one day be. Of course, throughout history we didn’t always have reasons to trust those who dealt with the details of death. Certainly the macabre stories we have read, or heard told have left a stain in the industry. Who in their right mind would want to work in such a field? Well, and what if no one did?

This book was so much fun, even when I was cringing and feeling shocked or sad for the terrible things that befall the living (which includes all of us, though we don’t like to tread that terrifying territory of thought) I found myself thinking differently about death. What a business! How strange, the way we paint death and hide from it with our pretty cemeteries and posh send offs. It’s more for the living than the deceased though, isn’t it? All this ceremony so we can bare being ‘self-aware creatures’ that have to accept death with life. It’s the price we have to pay, we all have a one way ticket, no one gets out of here alive, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause– okay, okay I’ll stop. Death is a loaded subject, surely only those whose thoughts turn to the morbid care to know the details. Really? Why?

This book matters to anyone who has lost someone, or will. Because we all do. It does matter who handles the bodies of our loved ones and how. I was shocked by some of the strange facts, as we are reminded by the author, death used to be present and far less shocking. Children often didn’t survive before the advance in medicine, bodies used to pile up around us- don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re not up to our ears in our neighbor’s and friend’s bodies but something has happened in the Western World where we are almost ignorant of it. Sometimes understanding a process makes it less terrifying. There are moments when I felt my heart sink, and others when I shook my head in disgust- not because of our fine narrator’s actions, just the reality of the details. In fact, reading about it takes the ‘romanticizing’ out of death. Our bodies are fascinating, and gross sometimes too.  You can’t see the human form more truly than how it looks at the end, there is no hiding for Caitlin.

I have to agree completely with her view that ‘our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead)’. We are terrified of it now that it’s packaged nice and tightly. This is a freshly intelligent book, yes I used the word fresh in a book about the subject of death. Full of interesting facts I quite enjoyed reading, and yet handled in a dignified manner. She takes the subject that gives so many people the heebie jeebies and through her wit and humor makes it less shocking.  Absorbing, engaging, provocative and always interesting. I wish I had read it sooner.

Available Now

W.W. Norton Company

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