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

I have some mixed feelings about this one. I found most of Doughty’s comments and opinions about death and the American way of handling it rather refreshing but there were some minor points that hit me a little off.
To focus on the positive stuff first, I love the detailed explanation of how her opinions of what a good handling of death evolved the longer she worked in the industry. As with everything else, experience changes us and our opinions and it was great to walk through a lot of that with her. I can’t help but agree that our avoidance of death makes seeing it more jarring than it should have to be. I also agree that there should be more ways to send someone off than the option that we have. Honestly, I’d love a little combination of her first idea for a funeral home and the last. I know plenty of people that would rather have an old world traditional pyre than an embalming and casket for reasons in no way ecologically focused. I also completely agree that we need more ritual with these things than our secularized culture has afforded us. That opinion also stems from having read A Short History of Myth a while back and completely relating to that material. Ritual is important to us, it’s obvious in the ways that I constantly hear people talk about their little ritual for this or that thing but we still seem somehow devoid of anything more meaningful than dolling up our dead and rolling by them in a casket before putting them in the ground or cremating them. The support Doughty gives her ideas and the history of the ways cultures deal with death was amazing in this book as was her general tone and style of writing.
What I found a little off-putting was the combination of her expectations and some of the ways she dealt with being an outsider in her field by the end of it. I do appreciate that she decided to be in the field rather than just throw stones as she said. I really respect that. At the same time, I understand the reservations that she mentions others having about her ways of being outspoken. She was in a hard spot between genuinely believing that the way we do things are wrong, being a part of the industry, and not really having a good way to get that opinion listened to. I sympathize but it still rubbed me wrong. But I did love the Ask a Mortician thing and plan to visit her site and see some of the questions people ask. I had a friend for a long time that was a funeral director and I managed to get a lot of my own questions out of my system. It was strange, once I really thought about it with my friend, that I knew almost nothing about what was expected and what happened once people died. She was always happy to talk about her job but I somehow missed a lot of the points that Doughty makes in this book. I’d love to go back and ask her some time what she thought about the embalming process, for example. It does sound gruesome.
Generally, I found the book eye opening about the way we handle death. I’d never been a fan of cremation and never understood the allure but I can’t say embalming was something I thought about. I was another of the many people who just looked at it like that’s just what we do until my dad mentioned it once as a child. I had an uncle pass that my mother was very close to and my father said he didn’t want a headstone or site for her to visit the way she did with my uncle for so long. Funerals are for the living and so are headstones. Without these ways of continuing to hold on to people, what would we do to actually let them go? And then I spent way too much time watching shows like Supernatural and Vikings and Game of Thrones and there are so many options.
As a memoir of dealing with death, it’s a great read for anyone. Just take the whole journey with Doughty and don’t stop at La Belle Mort. There’s a lot more to it all and a lot more options than we think. I love books that make me wonder, what would I do? If you could do anything you wanted without ecological or legal concerns for your family members, what would you do? Or if you could have anything done to you that you wanted, what would you want?

Check out Smoke Gets In Your Eyes at Goodreads here!

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