Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematorium
by Caitlin Doughty
Canongate Books 2015
‘A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,’ observes Caitlin Doughty, describing her first day working as a crematorium operator in a Californian mortuary. That laconic humour – and this is often a very funny book – supports her through incidents of poignancy and grief and routine encounters with decomposition, the intricacies of embalming, and learning the tricks of the trade: it is wire and superglue apparently that keep the departed’s mouth closed in that expression of repose.
The depth of the book is Doughty’s own journey in arriving at acceptance of death and its inescapable realities, and that is a journey through shock and its consequences.
At age eight she witnessed another child falling to her death and throughout childhood and teenage years she struggled unaided with undiagnosed posttraumatic stress. ‘So really what was a nice girl like me doing working at a ghastly ol’ crematorium? The truth was, I saw the job as a way to fix what had happened to the eight-year-old me.’
Her second serious intent is to wrest death back into the open. Dealing with death and cremation can now be arranged online – avoiding all contact with the body. As she says: ‘We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi for the modern world with bold fearless strokes.’
It is a brave, honest, funny book; part her own healing journey, part manifesto for open, less fearful dying.
Caitlin is founder of ‘The Order of the Good Death’– a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists who focus on the rituals families perform with their dead and how the industry disposes of dead bodies. Its website: (www.orderofthegooddeath.com) has the same deadpan humour and quirky approach that makes Smoke Gets in Your Eyes so original. She now runs her own funeral service in Los Angeles called Undertaking L.A., to help families with planning after they lose a family member.
Review by Anand Chetan
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