Book Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

What is this book about?
Caitlin Doughty’s memoir of her time working in a crematorium has the thesis that we need to stop denying the physicality of death, and go back to incorporating death into our lives. She writes about her experience working with death bodies from retrieving them in a van, preparing them for viewing, their cremation, and the retrieval of the ashes. The book is peppered with gristly details about embalming, decomposition, desquamation, putrefaction, liquefaction, and other such words. Doughty is unsentimental and unrelenting in her descriptions, but it isn’t voyeuristic. Rather it is to demystify the funeral process – and it is an industrialised process. That’s part of her lament – the commodification of death and its sanitisation from our experience. Further to that, the funeral industry itself is part of the problem – up-selling funerals with unnecessary adornments, metal caskets, elaborate wreaths, and embalming.

Why should I read this book?
I read this book soon after I read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, in which the last chapter was Memento Mori – in a strange way, it was a great continuation of looking at death as a way of life. She founded The Order of The Good Death – ‘a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality’. (She has been running a Youtube channel ‘Ask A Mortician‘ since 2011.) The book is a memoir of her journey to becoming a mortician, as well as a study of the different death rituals from different times and from different cultures. Doughty wants us to bring death and the dead back into our lives – washing and preparing the bodies of our dead – instead of outsourcing our death rituals, and distancing ourselves from the process. This book is worth a read, especially if you are rethinking your post-death options, or a just interested to know what happens to your mortal coil once you have passed on.

Memoir-manifesto-study of death, death rituals, and of working as a mortician.

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