Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory
Caitlin Doughty’s memoir of her journey to becoming a licensed mortician is equal parts morbid, hilarious, inspiring and ruthlessly genuine. It’s also a memoir of her fight against the fear of death, a fight that almost destroys her. Much like the orange rot that sometimes trails our faces during death, we may never be ready to see it. But Caitlin stresses throughout Smoke Gets in Your Eyes that witnessing death is how we ready ourselves for it, and even embrace its terrible beauty.
Caitlin may be a mortician, but first and foremost she is an observer and writer, using description and self-deprecation as weapons in her fight to bring death back to life. I immediately fell in love with her peculiar poetic outlook. On the way to her first day of working at Westwind Cremation & Burial she spots a “homeless man wearing a tutu [and dragging] an old car tire down the alley, presumably to repurpose it as a makeshift toilet.” And later that day, even though I felt mortified on her behalf, I still couldn't keep myself from laughing uncontrollably when she freaked out about her first shave ever on a dead man and "kept expecting to hear cries from the viewing room of “Dear God, who shaved him like this!”
As she learns more about the mortuary business Caitlin makes startling observations. While using a combination of the cremation machine, a bone blender (it's called a cremulator) and her own hands to turn humans into ash she thinks about her own skull and how “[it] might be crushed too, fragmented by the gloved hand of some hapless twentysomething like [her].” And later, in a particularly poignant moment, while discussing the pros and cons of donating bodies to science, Caitlin remembers her grandfather’s bout with Alzheimer’s and emphatically states, “If the donated heads of Alzheimer's patients . . . could make a difference to other families, off with their heads, I say.” Caitlin’s curiosity reaches beyond American practices. She explores the history of our death practices and compares us to other cultures, including the cannibalistic beliefs of the Wari’ and the “Tibetan's belief that a body can sustain other beings after the soul has left it.”
Caitlin’s morbidity is balanced by her ample enthusiasm and passion for her work. When we die our bodies go into a refrigerator. Each body has its own very ordinary cardboard box. When Caitlin retrieves a body from the ‘reefer’ she compares her excitement to “the early ‘90s stuffed toy for young girls, Puppy Surprise.” When a child bought one of the doggies it was always a surprise how many babies the dog would have. “Such was the case with dead bodies. Every time you opened the box you could get anything from a ninety-five-year-old woman who died peacefully at home hospice care to a thirty-year-old man they found in a dumpster behind a Home Depot after eight days of putrefaction.” For anyone who’s ever seen a puppy surprise in action this is a brilliant analogy, albeit a touch appalling.
Whether you are fascinated with death, clueless about what happens to our bodies after we die, or simply struggling with the loss of a loved one, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes will inspire, exercise your laughter muscles, and soothe your soul. Maybe, like Puppy Surprise, Doughty will give you exactly what, or even a little more, than you were hoping for. Thanks to Doughty, I feel a little bit more at peace with death’s terrible beauty. I think every person who reads this will glean some of that same peace. And together we’ll wholeheartedly applaud Caitlin Doughty for constructing a living bridge between death and the conversation we all so desperately need to have with each other.
If you're curious about what Caitlin Doughty is up to these days check out this excellent article about her in The New Yorker!