Published by W.W. Norton on Sep. 15, 2014
After witnessing a deadly accident as a child, Caitlin Doughty grew up with a fascination with death. She earned a degree in medieval history, but when her knowledge of witch burnings failed to bring employers to the yard, she took a job as a crematory operator for a family-owned mortuary. In the year she worked there, she got a unique insight into America’s death industry and developed a new perspective on the ways we deal (or don’t deal) with the inevitable. In this brilliantly researched memoir, Doughty gives us a glimpse of death rituals throughout history, morbidly funny tales of her crematory misadventures, and a thought-provoking call to change the way we relate to death.
I love a good memoir, and I’m also a huge fan of non-fiction books that make you constantly tap your partner on the shoulder and say, “hey, did you know?” Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is both of those things. It’s an unusual coming of age story, as Doughty goes from a bumbling newbie unsure of how to shave her first corpse to a seasoned professional trying to change the death industry as we know it. In addition to her sometimes funny, often macabre anecdotes, she also provides a history of death practices both in the US and around the world, spanning thousands of years.
Although her personal journey and the knowledge she shares are fascinating on their own, my favorite thing about this book is the way it challenged my perceptions of death. Every culture has rituals for dealing with their dead, but as religion fades in America, those rituals fade as well. As she performed cremations, observed embalmings, and interacted with family members, Doughty saw firsthand the way people avoid dealing with the realities of death, sterilizing it with cremations or hiding the sagging truth under caked-on makeup, wired-shut jaws, and eyes held peacefully closed with spiked plastic eye caps.
Doughty saw beauty in historic death rituals that honored the deceased and helped their loved ones to grieve. She argues that our culture’s fear and denial of death — in our obsession with youth, neglect of the elderly, and avoidance of seeing dead bodies in their natural state — is a tragedy.
“We can wander into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi for the modern world with bold, fearless, strokes.”
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was one of my favorite books this summer. Doughty’s stories are compelling, and I really appreciated her ability to make me question the ways I think about death. Some of the things she said made me feel squeamish or uncomfortable, but I think that proves her point about our culture’s fear of death, which she points out is a vital, beautiful part of life.
“Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create. Philosophers have proclaimed this for thousands of years just as vehemently as we insist upon ignoring it generation after generation… The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.”
I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who has a healthy curiosity about death, an open mind, and an appreciation of gallows humor. This would also be an excellent book for readers who enjoyed Stiff by Mary Roach!