Surprisingly, I’m the first person to check out my library’s copy of Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.
When Doughty was eight years old, she witnessed the accidental death of a girl at a mall. The incident led to Doughty developing a series of rituals to ward off her own death and the deaths of her parents and loved ones. While Doughty eventually grew out of her death-related OCD, she never lost her interest in all things Death.
After graduating with a degree in medieval history (specializing in medieval death culture), Doughty took a job at a crematory. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty—treats is definitely the wrong word—relates touching and horrific stories from the death industry. (It is very much an industry.) The job kills off Doughty’s fears of death once and for all. She’s able to laugh at the absurdities of some deaths and cathartically weep over the bodies of dead children. All the mystery—and thus, fear—of dying gets stripped away.
In fact, her job as a cremationist leads Doughty to become downright philosophical about the end of life. This memoir is sprinkled with quotes and anecdotes from history, anthropology, and religion to describe how other cultures deal with death. The quotes are not just for our own edification. They give context to Doughty’s thoughts about how the American way of death should be. Doughty writes:
The monks found liberation [from the fear of death] through their discomfort [by meditating in the presence of decomposing bodies], and in a way I was doing the same. Staring directly into the hear of my fear, something I could never do as a child, and ever so gradually, starting to break clear of it. (166*)
As this book wraps up, Doughty writes about her efforts to change American death culture to something healthier. Now she runs a site called The Order of the Good Death where people can ask questions and learn about alternatives to cremation, embalmment, and burial.
Before the 1930s, Doughty tells us, death happened mostly at home. We had cultural practices to tell us how to prepare bodies and what do do with them. Wakes are one of the few traditions still widely practiced. (Doughty mentions that “death doulas” are trying to revive other practices.) This is all gone. Death is hidden from view in America. Doughty believes this has warped our culture:
If decomposing bodies have disappeared from culture (which they have), but those same decomposing bodies are needed to alleviate the fear of death (which they are), what happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial. (165)
Doughty’s mission, via the Order of the Good Death, is to re-educate people about death and death ways. This re-education, she believes, will go a long way to alleviating the fear that Americans and other Westerners have about death.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is, perhaps, not a book one might wish to be caught reading in public. But I found it fascinating. (I know. I’m weird.) Reading this book is akin to my experience reading Flow, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim. In both books, natural experiences (death, menstruation) are medicalized. We are no longer taught by our parents to expect them as a part of life. Consequently, we are afraid. Misinformation gets out and makes things worse. Doughty ends Smoke Gets in Your Eyes with her call to arms (or coffins), “Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi [manual for the art of dying] for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes” (234).
* Quotes are from the 2014 hardcover edition by W.W. Norton & Co.