Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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Reviewed by Eleanor Franzén

Caitlin Doughty was a twenty-three-year-old with a degree in medieval history when she decided to become a mortician. The decision wasn’t spontaneous; she had been obsessed with death, she tells us, ever since, as a little girl, she watched another child fall to her death in a Honolulu shopping mall. Still, it’s an unusual career choice, which she freely admits. Her hope in joining the funeral industry seems to have been to exorcise some of her long-standing fears about death and mortality, whilst also feeding her attendant obsession with them. What eventually happened was this memoir, which chronicles not only her journey from fear to acceptance, but her growing interest in helping fight the culture of silence and ignorance that surrounds death, dying, and mourning rituals in modern Western (by which she mostly means American) culture.

Doughty’s content is fascinating and gruesome by turns: she describes the process of embalming with a level of gleeful detail that might induce queasiness in delicate readers. It’s a violent process—any notion that embalming helps to return the dead to a more “natural” state is an illusion. It involves removing blood, organs and other fluids from the body cavity, and replacing them with a pink formaldehyde substance, and certainly does not result in a “natural” appearance, as anyone who has ever viewed a dead body at an open casket reception can attest. What it does do is conceal the processes of decomposition, which cause unfortunate phenomena such as bloating, skin discoloration (neon green and orange are not uncommon hues for a corpse’s skin to attain), and something truly unpleasant called “skin slip”, which is precisely what it sounds like.

The culture of concealment surrounding preparation of the dead begins to bother Doughty more and more over the course of the book. She starts her mortuary career with the ambition of starting her own funeral home called La Belle Mort, where mourners can “put the ‘fun’ back in ‘funeral’”, but she quickly realizes that this is only a logical extension of the already-prevalent tendency among funeral directors to shove the reality of death under the carpet. The book is peppered with anthropological anecdotes about the way other cultures honour the bodies of their dead and the passing of their souls; it could easily slide into a sort of exoticism, but what comes across most strongly is Doughty’s discomfort with the way the dead in America are overwhelmingly abandoned by their families. More often than not, she is the lone person to whom the disposal of a human body is entrusted; she is the guardian who sees their body out of the world, by way of the crematorium’s flames. This is a far cry from the Wa’ri tribe of Brazil, who eat their dead as a way of removing all trace of them from the earth, or the modern Japanese kotsuage rituals where the family gathers around the cremation chamber to tenderly remove the bones themselves, working from the feet upwards so that the deceased can enter the afterlife upright. Writing of one corpse, a Mr Martinez, Doughty notes “I did not know him, and yet there I was, the bearer of all ritual and all actions surrounding his death. I was his one-woman kotsuage…For me to be in charge of this man’s final moments, with no training other than a few weeks operating a cremation machine, did not seem right.”

Her sense of not-rightness leads her to form an online community, the Order of the Good Death, and a web series, Ask a Mortician, aimed at demystifying the modern rituals of death. She finds that family members respond far better to honesty about what happens to their loved ones in the cremation chamber than they do to dissimulation. It’s an admirable aim: we live in a culture that fears, loathes, and shuns not only death, but all signs of aging, any sense that we might be losing the physical perfections of youth. The elderly are growing in number; in twenty years, there will be as many people over the age of eighty as there are under the age of five, and there are not enough geriatricians in training to support the demand that will be placed on the medical profession as a result. Any attempt to raise awareness of this problem, and to force us to pay attention to our own mortality as perhaps the most significant aspect of our lives, can only be a good thing.

Doughty takes a while to get into her stride; the initial scene-setting, where she writes about her first job in a Bay Area crematorium, often reads a little like the voiceover script for a generically quirky Netflix series. But about halfway through the book, her passion for “the good death”, her personal brushes with death, and her increasing awareness of the ways in which the funeral industry fails the dead and their families every day, takes over. She hooks you with the details even when the narrating voice seems flat, and when that voice takes off, the book is irresistible. I hope that Doughty allows many more people to properly consider their own “good deaths”, to realize that death is the fact that gives our lives meaning, and to conquer their fears.

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Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks and is also managing editor of Quadrapheme magazine.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Caitlin Doughty. (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015). 978-1782111030, 254 pp., hardback.

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