Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty is sometimes off-putting but always honest. It’s a book I’ve been eyeing for a long time. As a long-standing follower of her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician and backer of The Order of the Good Death’s mission to raise death awareness in our youth-obsessed culture, I knew what I was getting into. But it still made me think differently about the death industry here in the United States and how woefully unprepared we modern people are to deal baldly with death.
As a goth, I myself am a bit death-obsessed. I live with dysthymia, meaning my existential dread rules my life without proper medication. With medication, I still find death fascinating, just not obsessively so. I collect skulls and medical books, love forensics and crime books, and even have a few coffee table books hidden away with black and white photos of death scenes and mourning photography from the Thanatos Archive, including the coroner’s detailed notes from the 1920s. I find these fascinating, and I always have. I’m no stranger to death and dying, or at least conceptually. There’s something about being in the presence of an actual dead body though that fills me with existential horror — What happened to the life I knew in that frame? Does everything just cease?
If you’re religious, you have ideas. Maybe you think you have answers, but no one really knows for sure. We all pass through that door eventually from living to dead, and no one really knows what awaits us. If anything at all.
Doughty is clear and honest about her experiences as a young mortuary assistant. Her recollections are brutal, including working with her first dead body on her first day on the job, and highlight the need for more training and care for young people just entering the profession. She describes bodily functions and decay in ways I’ve never seen in other books on the subject: raw and with the careful observation of one familiar with such functions. Her writing is open and frank.
Title on YouTube
For someone like me with that unique mix of dysthymia and (recovered) anorexia though, it is a little triggering. Just because I’m already obsessed with my own existential dread. This isn’t her fault at all, and I appreciate the exposure. I want to know more, even if the knowledge that my body fat will make me decompose in a more disgusting manner than a thinner person. I want to know that. I need to know that. It turns a fuller picture of the death process, and I don’t believe in sheltering oneself from such realities.
Read it. It may be tough at times, but it’s important.
My rating: 5/5
Find Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty on Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25189315
- Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive. Ed. Sue Henger. California State University, 2015. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21807414
- Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook. Ed. Sean Tejaratchi. Feral House, 1996. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/649070
- Doughty, Caitlin. Ask A Mortician. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/user/OrderoftheGoodDeath
- Doughty, Caitlin. “Ever Wondered ‘What If I’m Buried When I’m Just In A Coma?’” Ideas.TED. 12 Sept. 2019. https://ideas.ted.com/ever-wondered-what-if-im-buried-when-im-just-in-a-coma/
- Eloise, Marianne. “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? How Caitlin Doughty Teaches Kids About Death.” The Guardian. 12 Sept. 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/12/will-my-cat-eat-my-eyeballs-how-caitlin-doughty-teaches-kids-about-death
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