Not for the faint of heart, Caitlin Doughty’s memoir of her road to becoming a mortician, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, features dead bodies–or decedents as we learn they’re properly called–on almost every page. As Doughty reveals, she came to think about death at an early age, witnessing a young girl fall to her death at a mall. The sound of the girl landing still haunts her.
The book opens as she starts her new job as a crematory operator at a family-owned mortuary, something she moved to San Francisco specifically to do. She learns the tricks of the trade from how to properly shave a dead body to how to make sure the body gets turned in the crematory machine so that the lower half of the body has its chance to burn. The chest, you see, takes the longest to burn as it’s the thickest part of the body. We meet Mike, her boss; Chris, the driver who picks up the bodies; and Bruce, the part-time mortician. It takes a certain kind of person, it seems, to work in the death industry. Doughty manages to not reduce them to caricatures. In fact, in her notes on sources, she mentions that she had the support of her coworkers and didn’t even have to change their names.
Doughty studied medieval history in college, specifically how that era approached death. This proves rich territory and each chapter has some sort of historical nugget that helps move along her point. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes succeeds precisely because she blends the blunt realities of what a body smells like after spending two days in the river with a thoughtful analysis of the culture of death, mixing in historical mores with the current. Doughty questions a great deal about the culture of death beginning with the modern funeral process. For too long, she says, the funeral industry has imbued us with the idea that we must embalm the dead, i.e. make them look like the living. There’s a separation from death in our culture that didn’t exist even a hundred years ago when one might die at home, be washed by a family member, and be buried in a simple box.
Some people will find this book and its subject matter appalling and the chapter titled ‘Dead Babies’ will be hard going for anyone. But Dought raises excellent points about what has become of our death culture. With the largest segment of population over 85 ever, we’re going to have to face some difficult questions. Luckily for us, Doughty and others like her, have already begun the discussion. One caveat, maybe don’t eat dinner while reading.