12. A non-fiction book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
List Progress: 3/30
You are going to die. I am going to die. Everyone you know, from your loved ones to the barista at your favorite coffee shop to everyone you pass on the street, they are all going to die and leave behind some sort of corpse. One day, your body will become an inanimate object, and other people will have to carry it, wash it, prepare it, and decide what to do with it. People like Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, blogger of the Ask A Mortician series, and author of the 2014 book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. This book follows her from her first job at a crematory, to her reluctant decision to go to mortuary school, to her founding of her own funeral home and death movement, The Order of the Good Death. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is morbid and squishy, but in a very intentional, important way: Doughty is on a mission to get Americans to think about death differently, and honesty and openness are her best tools.
My grandmother died in June, and while I was not involved in the funeral preparations, a death in the family does raise a lot of questions about end of life plans. Reading Doughty lay out what happens during cremation, embalming, green funerals, and different methods of body disposal was quite interesting, as was her analysis of her own personal journey with death. The story could get a bit scattered sometimes and the narrative voice was a bit too consciously quirky for my taste (a trend I’ve noticed in a lot of San Francisco authors I’ve read, but maybe I just notice it more living in the Bay Area), but on the whole I flew through the book. The descriptions of decay and decomposition are not for the weak of stomach, but once you let yourself engage with it, the text has a strong point to make.
Doughty’s central thesis is that our culture has tried to box up, sterilize and segment death away from our daily lives so much that we no longer know how to process it openly and honestly. She advocates for people being able to come to terms with their own plans and feelings about death and for families to not feel pressured by an often-predatory funeral industry, to be able to grieve in their own ways without being told they are doing it “wrong”. Reading this from someone who has been there, who has transported bodies and talked to families, rather than an author coming at it from an academic perspective, means a lot and really draws you in to her world-view.
I’m not completely in love with Doughty’s writing style still, but I think her message and her stories are very important, and I would be happy to overlook my stylistic quibbles to read more of her work in the future.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.