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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory Hardcover – September 15, 2014
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“[Doughty’s] sincere, hilarious, and perhaps life-altering memoir is a must-read for anyone who plans on dying.” (Katharine Fronk - Booklist, Starred review)
“Caitlin Doughty is best known for her YouTube series Ask a Mortician, and she brings the same charisma and drollery to her essay collection Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Think Sloane Crosley meets Six Feet Under.” (Kevin Nguyen - Grantland)
“Entertaining and thought-provoking.” (Julia Jenkins - Shelf Awareness)
“Demonically funny dispatches.” (O Magazine)
“Morbid and illuminating.” (Entertainment Weekly)
“A book as graphic and morbid as this one could easily suck its readers into a bout of sorrow, but Doughty―a trustworthy tour guide through the repulsive and wondrous world of death―keeps us laughing.” (Rachel Lubitz - Washington Post)
“Doughty reels you in with wonderful anecdotes about her work. Intermixed with the humor is a love of life that will make you reconsider how our culture treats the dead.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
About the Author
Mortician Caitlin Doughty―host and creator of “Ask a Mortician” and the New York Times best-selling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes―founded the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death and co-founded Death Salon. She lives in Los Angeles, where she runs her nonprofit funeral home, Undertaking LA.
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Top Customer Reviews
The author of this book has been fascinated with the subject of death and dying since she was a young girl and witnessed the death of another young girl who took a fall at a local mall. For years afterwards she was filled with angst and trepidation and described herself as "functionally morbid."
When she went to college she got a degree in medieval history with a focus on death and rituals and afterwards got a job working at a mortuary - the Westwind Cremation & Burial.
This book describes her experiences facing death straight on and how it actually eased her own existential angst and made her better able to appreciate and enjoy her own life. We not only read (detailed) descriptions of what happens to bodies in a crematorium, we also learn about other mortuary practices and what really happens behind the scenes.
The author makes such an important case against our own culture's tendency to avoid death (and aging!) and to try to avoid its very existence. She points out how in the past and how even today - in other cultures - family and neighbors took care of their dead and witnessed dying all the time. She points out how important that is to accepting our own death and by doing so, make it less frightening and esoteric.
Lest I give the impression that this is a depressing book, for me it was not. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments and when I finished the last page I found myself with a little less of my own existential angst.
This book reminded me a lot of science writer Mary Roach and I feel like I'd love to hang out and be friends with both of them. Ms. Doughty has such a pleasant writing style and when you're finished reading, you will not only have been entertained but educated as well. She takes on this sobering and angst-filled subject with an abundance of wit and sensitivity. I hope this book gets the attention and audience it deserves.
In addition to her own story, Doughty skillfully weaves in a history of embalming, American funeral traditions, other cultures' funeral rites and beliefs about death, and how the mortuary industry works, and it's all quite interesting, if sometimes a little difficult to read. If you're squeamish, it might be best to steer clear, as Doughty spares no description in her quest to open the reader's eyes to what really happens to our bodies after we die and how we can best understand and deal with death more honestly and directly than we currently do.
I don't know if I should say I "enjoyed" this book the way I would enjoy a novel, but I certainly appreciated it, especially since I have gone through the deaths of family members and am getting on in years myself, and I feel it's important to explore and be able to talk about our own ends openly, rather than tiptoeing around the subject.
I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the mortuary/funeral industry, medical students (doctors in this country don't deal with death very well), and anyone who, like me, wants to understand more about death and how to plan for it.
However Ms Doughty has acquitted herself quite nicely in this venture, one this reviewer is very interested in-about how do we want to leave this world and what it means to our loved ones. She describes the death care ritual and industry well and alludes to many alternatives. A review digression is appropriate at this point.
As an aging blogger who has spent his life as if there were no future, I happened to read Mary Roach’s book Stiffs and was inspired to make all of my end of life plans. They included what I imagined best for the environment and cheapest for my daughters who would have to bear the brunt of their old man’s demise. I won’t have much to leave them financially and so want to minimize costs at getting rid of what I leave. So I elected to donate my body to science and if Doughty is correct, there will be no cost to my kids for getting rid of my remains. That’s good. If my daughters want to have a memorial for me they can do that as long as the background music is Thelonious Monk.
I came prepared to read Doughty’s book knowing that my post-mortem life was assured, at least as far as I could plan. In the extraordinary event that I should be selected for the rapture then all bets are off. While I have always tried to be a reasonable man, it is my suspicion that the rapture requires other necessities. What do I know?
Back to the book at hand. Doughty’s is more a memoir of her experiences and philosophy, while Roach’s was of various ways a body can decompose. The former is very personalized and provided this reader with much inspiration about her history (short as it has been) to continue to think about how we view death in our culture. It is a discussion I have had with my equally aging peers many times.
There is something of a cult of longevity in this country. Futurists write about living for 150 years for example. We have a profound fear of death here as well. The commercial world is proffering their anti-aging solutions and slogans abound such as “50 is the new 70”.
It is true that later middle age is viewed differently than it was even when I was in my 20s. Older people are more vigorous as a rule, than they were 40 years ago. As the author points out, this anti-aging game is really for those that can afford it. I would suspect that if asked, Donald Trump would state a preference to live to be 150.
But all of the glory of youth and anti-aging is really a fool’s game. What are the costs of living beyond a reasonable lifetime? Resources go into letting some live longer and the population expands. My own 90 year old father has lost most all of his longtime friends to natural deaths. Simultaneously, people in poverty on an international scale get to suffer penury and starvation in order to live much shorter lives.
It is my own opinion that we ought to live lives with vim and when that wanes and nursing staff have to take care of us rather than a malnourished child living in poverty a few miles away, it is time to cash in the chips. It seems that we ought to fend for ourselves while we individually are able to but then let go when staff have to care for us. The costs of keeping an aging population (who can afford it) are misspent when there is so much need elsewhere.
My own mother only recently died and she shared my thinking. She had an option of having life extending surgery in her early 80s. She investigated the potential good of that exercise and discovered that there was a reasonable chance that the surgery could diminish her mental capacity. She opted out of that arrangement and lived several more years with her physical capacity dwindling but her mind sharp.
These are amongst the things that Doughty described in her book. She also made suggestions about the disposal of human remains when the time comes. This also a very emotional topic, one laced with cultural mores. It is her desire to have a green burial. Cremation has its good points but it is at a serious cost to our sketchy environmental resources. She likened the procedure to be akin to driving a car 500 miles. She describes other cultures and historical times who did a better job. The one I liked the best is one that if I had the wherewithal to do would be to go to a desolate place as death loomed, die and then let nature take its course like it does when a deer dies for instance. Flies, beetles, vultures and coyotes will prolong their own lives with the sustenance that my body could provide. I do not find that repulsive at all. Were I able to succinctly end my life that way I would. Doughty prefers to have plant life profit from her remains and there is nothing wrong with that.
As she often pointed out, her subject matter makes people uncomfortable as does her job. It was clearly her goal to make people uncomfortable so that they could re-think their views on death and the disposal of loved ones. She discusses the cultural aspects of our beliefs about the process and how they are influenced by religious dogma amongst other things. The repugnance that is often felt when discussing the end of life process has also been heavily influenced by the death industry. Like all other commercial endeavors there must be something to sell. In this case it is to people who currently have a unique vulnerability. We want to honor the dead. We are also filled with emotion. Funeral orations do not remind us of when Joe went to prison for usurping the retirement funds of thousands. They do not expound on how Mary only married Brad for his sizeable portfolio. Rather they remind us of how funny the person in the casket was or how they loved the local football team. Certainly they also remind the audience of really good things the deceased did when they have done those things.
Ultimately the dead do not care what happens to their remains. It is likely that many or most state preferences and loved ones abide by those in most cases. Doughty’s goal is to have society rethink preferences and to expand them far beyond ornate sepulchers and embalming. She wants us to think beyond cremation and scattering ashes in the sea or other romantic notions about how we cycle from ashes to ashes.
Her goal is to have us rethink the potential of disposing of remains that considers the physical environment that we live in. It is also to reconsider the social and cultural environment. We may want to ask ourselves well in advance of our assumed demise (yeah we all may be hit by a bus tomorrow) and plan our exit in a way that costs all of humanity less than the dying industry would hope.
Doughty hit on many things that have been pondered (and actually acted upon) in these quarters. She provides insight that is profound and often in a mirthful way. She discusses many things that were pretty much spot on for this reviewer and that is my disclaimer.