Maybe reading a memoir about a crematory operator doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, but let me just tell you when it’s written by someone like Caitlin Doughty, you might want to rethink that. Doughty has written a number of books I’ve loved, including Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs and From Here to Eternity, exploring questions about death and funerary customs around the world. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes isn’t like that though. This book is kind of an origin story. It’s an account of why and how Doughty became obsessed with death and became the death positive advocate she is today.
As a child growing up in Hawaii, Doughty witnessed the traumatic death of another child. It left her obsessively completing rituals (in what was likely an undiagnosed case of OCD) to protect herself and others. But as she grew up, that obsession led to a desire to become a part of the funeral industry. And the more she experienced death and dead bodies first hand, the more she came to realize that death is an inevitable and necessary part of life.
Yes, her job operating a crematory machine at a small funeral home was at times heartbreaking and almost all the time at least a little bit gross, but it left her feeling empowered. And the longer she spent working there, the more she wanted to get to the bottom of the funeral industry to find out what was keeping us so removed from death in the modern age. Why, for instance, were police officers and, in fact, funeral directors telling families it was unsafe to keep the body of a loved one at home for even a few hours after death when that is not remotely the case?
From recounting deeply personal experiences of emotional turmoil to her firsthand experiences, as someone with no interest in embalming, learning to embalm at mortuary school this book deals with difficult (and sometimes taboo) topics with heart and Doughty’s signature humor. (If this sounds like a winning combo to you, check out her YouTube channel: Ask a Mortician.)
More than just a memoir of Doughty’s experiences as a crematory operator, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is an exploration of just how removed modern life has become from death–and how very unnatural that is. Historically, death and dying have not been separated from everyday life. Bodies were washed and lovingly prepared by loved ones at home. So why, then, do we have so little say in our funerary practices today? After all, as Doughty points out at one point in the book, “we are all just future corpses.”
Doughty demystifies the experience. Whether you want to be cremated, embalmed, or eaten by wild animals (like Doughty herself hopes for), this book encourages you to start asking questions about what the end of your life should look like.
This book definitely got me thinking about my own relationship with death. How would I want my own death and funeral (and that of my loved ones) to go? Those can be heavy topics, of course, but somehow they never quite feel that way with Doughty as our down to earth but perfectly upbeat guide. Who said talking about death couldn’t be fun?