Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory - Caitlin Doughty

Summary: A young mortician goes behind the scenes, unafraid of the gruesome (and fascinating) details of her curious profession.

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Doughty learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Doughty soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Doughty's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Doughty argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead). (Summary and pic from

My Review: I fully expected this book to be similar to something Mary Roach had written. In fact, I thought it would be the crematory version of Stiff. I was…wait for it…wrong. It did have some background and history of cremations and death practices, but it was nothing like the usually very in-depth look at whatever topic Mary Roach was explaining. This was more of a memoir of Doughty’s work in a crematorium, with a large and healthy dose of her beliefs in death practices and the treatment of death in American society. Since she is now a licensed mortician, she definitely knows a lot about it and isn’t just pontificating.

I think this is a good addition to other books about death. I really like how she addresses death in our society, as well as exploring other societies and their death practices. It is obvious she has an agenda, but it isn’t like it’s one that has some serious opposing views, more like most people are unaware of their choices in regards to death. I felt like she did a good job of exposing the almost charlatan-like practices of mortuaries today in a manner that was not overbearing. While I probably won’t bury my loved ones in my backyard when they’ve passed, I did find it interesting to read about the natural death practices movement that I had no idea about.

And the thing that made this book even better? It’s funny. Like really funny. Doughty has a great sense of humor. It’s sometimes shocking—this book is about crematories and death, ya know—but it does make for a good read. Her writing is easy and it makes a topic that is sometimes hard to read about palatable.

One of my favorite things, though, was reading through the websites she referenced. I waited until the book was over (because I like to build up to this kind of thing) and then explored her Order of the Good Death site, as well as other sites that were linked to it or referenced in it. I love doing that kind of thing. Just when you think you have pretty much seen or heard everything, the internet reveals a small microcosm of culture to which I am just not exposed.  If you read this book, and I think you should, I highly recommend reading her recommended websites that go with it as well. Plus, it isn’t very often that you get to look at pictures of skeletons and mummies and death scenes and be all legit about it.

My Review: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has a lot of discussion of death and burial of adults, children, and babies, and for that reason is could be startling or offensive to some readers.

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